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What are asset-backed securities?

Understanding Asset-Backed Securities

An Introduction to Asset-Backed Securities

Asset-backed Securities (ABS) are financial instruments that represent a claim on a pool of underlying assets, which typically are packs of loans. These assets bundle together and convert into securities for sale to investors on the open market, allowing institutions to remove these loans from their balance sheets.

As an investor, you may be wondering, “What are asset-backed securities?” Well, they are complex investment products that offer many opportunities as well as challenges. They incorporate diverse underlying assets, including auto loans, student loans, credit card receivables, or any other money-generating assets, allowing for the creation of a broad array of unique investment products. This broad range and wide return potential make them an alternative to traditional bonds for many investors.

Workings of Asset-Backed Securities

Asset-backed securities work by borrowing small sums from multiple loans and bundling them together. For instance, let’s consider a bank that has given out a large number of vehicle loans. Given the risks associated with any individual loan, the bank wants to protect its interests by securitizing the loan pool.

To do so, the bank would create a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), a separate legal entity. The bank then sells the loan pool to the SPV, who, in turn, packages those loans into security and sells it to investors. Following that, investors are able to purchase these securities in tranches (or sections) ranked according to their risk components.

Understanding Tranching

Tranching is a significant aspect of the ABS system. The tranches are typically designated as senior, mezzanine, and equity (or junior), according to their risk profile and return potential. In the event of a loan default, the equity tranche will incur the damage first, followed by the mezzanine and the senior tranches.

As a result, the senior tranche is perceived as the safest, whilst the equity tranche is seen as the riskiest. Therefore, the equity tranche offers a higher potential return to compensate for the increased risk. Hence, tranching allows the product to cater to a broad range of investment appetites, from conservative investors seeking a lower risk investment to aggressive investors seeking higher rewards.

Benefits and Risks of Asset-Backed Securities

Benefits of Asset-Backed Securities

One of the critical advantages of ABS is the opportunity for diversification. They provide exposure to a distinct asset class – loan-backed securities – which helps in minimizing the investment risk. Moreover, due to the tranche system, investors can customize their level of risk and return.

Another benefit of ABS is their return potential. Since these loans have typically got a higher interest rate than government or high-grade corporate bonds, ABS provide a higher yield. And, the risk factor can be mitigated by prudent purchasing, particularly by focusing on senior tranches, or asset-backed securities backed by a reliable loan portfolio.

Risks of Asset-Backed Securities

While ABS offers various advantages, they are not without risks. The biggest risk is of default – if a significant proportion of the underlying loan pool defaults, the investor may lose a portion or even all of their investment. Since ABS are derived from loans, they are significantly exposed to economic downturns, increasing the likelihood of defaults during such periods.

Furthermore, ABS suffers from liquidity risk. These securities are often more difficult to sell than other kinds of bonds, especially during periods of market stress. Therefore, investors in ABS must be prepared for potentially long holding periods.

They are also exposed to interest rate risk. Typically, as interest rates rise, the prices of fixed-income securities such as asset-backed securities decrease.


In summary, asset-backed securities represent an interesting option for those seeking to diversify their portfolios or seek alternatives to bonds in the fixed-income market. Nonetheless, like all financial instruments, they come with their potential downsides and carry certain risks. Hence, though ABS can offer a profitable investment, they should be considered as part of a diversified and well-balanced portfolio, rather than one-stop solutions.

To fully exploit their potential and limit their risks, a clear comprehension of their working, benefits, and risks is indispensable, and professional advice should be sought where necessary.