What is a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO)?

A collateralized debt obligation (CDO) is a complex financial instrument that is created by pooling together a group of underlying debt instruments, such as bonds or loans, and then re-packaging them as new securities to be sold to investors. The underlying debt instruments are divided into different risk categories, with the riskiest assets typically being placed in the lowest tier and the least risky assets in the highest tier. The resulting CDO is then sold to investors, who receive payments based on the performance of the underlying assets.

The key feature of a CDO is that it is collateralized, which means that the value of the securities is backed by the underlying debt instruments. In other words, if the underlying debt instruments perform well, then the CDO is likely to perform well, and vice versa. The collateralization process provides a measure of protection to investors, as it helps to mitigate some of the risks associated with the underlying assets.

CDOs can be structured in a variety of ways, with different levels of risk and reward. For example, a CDO may be divided into different tranches, each with a different level of risk and potential reward. The senior tranche is typically the least risky, with the lowest potential returns, while the junior tranche is the riskiest, with the highest potential returns. This structure allows investors to choose the level of risk that they are comfortable with, based on their investment goals and risk tolerance.

CDOs gained popularity in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly in the mortgage industry, where they were used to package and sell large numbers of mortgages to investors. However, the collapse of the housing market in 2008 led to significant losses for many investors in mortgage-backed CDOs, and contributed to the wider financial crisis that followed. As a result, the use of CDOs has become more restricted in some markets, and they are subject to increased regulatory oversight in many countries.

Simplified Example

A collateralized debt obligation (CDO) is a financial product that pools together a group of individual debts, such as mortgages, credit card debts, or car loans, and sells them as a new investment vehicle to investors.

To explain CDOs in an analogy, imagine a chef making a cake. The chef starts by gathering ingredients like flour, sugar, and eggs, and combines them to create a batter. Similarly, a bank gathers individual debts like mortgages, car loans, and credit card debts, and combines them to create a CDO.

The chef then pours the batter into a cake pan and puts it in the oven to bake. After baking, the cake can be sliced into pieces and sold to customers. In the same way, the bank packages the CDO and sells it to investors who can buy a portion of the package, similar to buying a slice of the cake. The investor's return on investment depends on the performance of the underlying debts in the CDO.

Just like a cake can be sliced into different sizes, a CDO can be structured with different levels of risk and return for investors. The higher the risk, the higher the potential return, but also the higher the chance of losing money if the underlying debts default.

History of the Term Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs)

The inception of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) saw their initial emergence in 1987, pioneered by bankers at the now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. The first private bank-issued CDOs were created for the also now-defunct Imperial Savings Association. These early CDOs predominantly comprised corporate and emerging market bonds as well as bank loans throughout the 1990s. However, it wasn't until after 2000 that CDOs gained significant prominence. Prudential Securities introduced "multi-sector" CDOs in the late 1990s, broadening the range of underlying assets within these financial instruments.

Despite setbacks due to downgrades by rating agencies in the early 2000s, CDO sales surged from $69 billion in 2000 to approximately $500 billion in 2006, marking a substantial growth trajectory in the CDO market between 2004 and 2007, with issued CDOs amounting to $1.4 trillion during this period.

However, the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2008 led to a catastrophic downturn. Default rates on mortgages soared, triggering a domino effect of CDO downgrades and substantial losses for financial institutions worldwide. This crisis significantly undermined confidence in CDOs and contributed to the global financial turmoil, highlighting the risks inherent in these intricate financial products.


Crypto-collateralized debt markets (CCDMs): CCDMs are decentralized platforms that allow borrowers to access loans by collateralizing their crypto assets. They allow investors to buy tokens that represent a share of the underlying crypto assets, similar to a CDO.

Tokenized CDOs: Some companies are tokenizing CDOs using blockchain technology, allowing investors to buy and trade tokens representing shares in a pool of crypto assets. These tokens can be traded on decentralized exchanges, making it easy for investors to buy and sell shares in the CDO.

Crypto-collateralized stablecoins: Some stablecoin projects are backed by a pool of crypto assets, which serve as collateral to ensure the stability of the stablecoin's value. These projects can be seen as a form of CDO, as the value of the stablecoin is determined by the value of the underlying crypto assets.

  • Collateralized Debt Position (CDP): A Collateralized Debt Position (CDP) in crypto is a type of financial instrument that allows users to borrow funds by collateralizing their crypto assets.

  • Collateralized Mortgage Obligation (CMO): A Collateralized Mortgage Obligation (CMO) is a type of financial instrument that pools together mortgages and then sells them to investors as a single security.