Structured Products and the Mischief of Self-Indexing
In recent years, investment banks have issued structured products linked to indexes they create rather than just linking to standardized indexes from Standard & Poor's. In doing so, the issuers create additional difficulties for retail investors to understand these, sometimes complex, investments. We illustrate the potential conflicts of interest created with structured products linked to proprietary volatility indexes although the conflicts are present in other proprietary index based investments as well.
In the 1990s, investment banks switched from underwriting reverse convertibles and tracking securities issued by operating companies like Citicorp and Reynolds Metals linked to their own stock to issuing and underwriting structured products linked to unrelated publicly traded companies like Cisco Systems. This change in investment banks' role led to a dramatic proliferation of new issuances and ever more complicated payoff structures since the underwriters were no long limited to underwriting securities other companies wanted to issue. Investment banks could now issue notes in relatively small denominations linked to publicly traded companies that the brokerage firms could then sell through their retail sales force. The complexity of these notes made regulatory oversight more difficult and allowed issuers to sell structured products with very low issue date values.