Fortune has added a new phrase to my vocabulary: liquidity puts. In an interview with Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) Chairman Robert Rubin, liquidity puts are defined as the right of Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) holders to sell back the CDO to its issuer at the original price. The liquidity put is responsible for the $25 billion worth of CDOs on Citi's balance sheet.
Before getting into how this all works, it is amazing to me how many new words I've learned as a result of the collapse of the real estate market which began in the fall of 2006 -- when I first began posting on the topic. Since then, I've been introduced to all sorts of new terms -- subprime mortgages, CDOs, Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs), the Yen Carry Trade, and Level 3 assets -- to name just a few.
When Citi set up its $80 billion worth of SIVs, it thought that they would stay off its balance sheet. This summer, though, financial markets lost interest in financing CDOs so the holders of the liquidity-put CDOs began to return them to Citi -- the $25 billion of them represent more than half of Citi's $55 billion of subprime-related securities. The super-senior status -- meaning that they got first claim on cash flows -- of the put-laden CDOs did not protect their value because the ratings agencies decided to downgrade them, creating a panic to exercise the put and sell the CDOs back to Citi, thus locking in huge losses for the bank.
As an investor, I am hoping that Robert Rubin's vanity -- I think his once sterling reputation has been tarnished -- will engage him in fixing Citi. But I wonder whether Citi's problems could be too big for him to fix.