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Category — General Notions
By Konstantin Vasilev Member of the Board of Directors of Cbonds, Ph.D. in Economics
Updated September 11, 2023

What Does a Tranche Mean?

The term "tranche" originates from the French word for "slice" or "portion." Within the realm of investing, it refers to a financial asset that can be divided into smaller segments and then offered to various investors.
Tranche also denotes a prevalent financial arrangement employed in debt securities such as mortgage-backed securities (MBS). This is frequently encountered in the context of mortgage-backed securities (MBS), which consist of a collection of mortgage loans grouped together for purchase by investors.


Tranches Explained

Tranches represent a compilation of segregated and organized securities based on diverse attributes before being offered to investors. These segments of tranches can encompass varying maturity periods, credit ratings, and yields (interest rates). Investors can tailor their investment strategies to meet their requirements across all tranches, regardless of maturity and interest rates. A credit rating functions as an evaluation of the creditworthiness pertaining to a borrower or the entity issuing a particular debt or financial commitment.

Financial instruments that are divisible into tranches encompass loans, bonds, mortgages, and insurance policies. The utilization of tranches is predominantly observed within credit and debt markets through a procedure known as securitization. This process involves the division of assorted types of debt instruments into funds that are subsequently sold to investors, allowing them to accrue interest on the debt. Investment bankers can construct a unified collection of loans characterized by similar traits that cater to the preferences of specific investors.

Types of Tranches

Senior Tranches

Referred to as the ’A-Tranche,’ senior tranches encompass the most secure segments within a debt security. These tranches possess the foremost entitlement to the cash flows generated by the underlying assets and are the initial recipients of payments. In senior tranches, assets usually hold higher credit ratings compared to those in junior tranches.

Due to their elevated standing in the payment order, senior tranches generally feature lower yields compared to other tranches, reflecting their diminished level of risk.

Mezzanine Tranches

Mezzanine tranches occupy an intermediary position in the hierarchy of a structured financial transaction.

Positioned between senior and junior tranches, mezzanine tranches carry a greater degree of risk than senior tranches but less than junior tranches. Consequently, their yield falls in between, offering investors a trade-off between risk and potential return.

Junior Tranches

Also recognized as equity or the ’C-Tranche,’ junior tranches reside at the base of the payment hierarchy. They are the final recipients of any payments and assume the most substantial risk.

As a consequence, junior tranches frequently yield greater potential returns to compensate investors for their heightened exposure to risk.

It is important to note that credit rating agencies can also misclassify tranches. Assigning them a higher rating than warranted could lead investors to unknowingly hold riskier assets than originally intended. This mischaracterization contributed to the mortgage meltdown in 2007 and the ensuing financial crisis.

Understanding How Tranches Work

Derivatives, which derive their value from underlying securities like stocks and bonds, have been utilized for an extended period in markets encompassing stocks and commodities. Financial instruments such as put options, call options, and futures contracts fall under the category of derivatives. The buyer commits to acquiring the asset at a specific price on a designated date in these contracts.

Financial institutions employed derivatives to bundle individual loans into a product that could be sold to other investors on the secondary market. This approach enabled them to mitigate the risk associated with holding onto the loans until maturity while providing them with fresh funds for lending.

The majority of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) are rooted in adjustable-rate mortgages. These mortgages entail varying interest rates during different time periods. Borrowers initially pay reduced "teaser" interest rates for the initial three years, which then escalate. The potential for default during the initial three years is minimal due to the lower rates.

However, the risk of default increases beyond this period. As interest rates rise, the cost also escalates. Additionally, many borrowers anticipate either selling their property or refinancing within the first four years.

Certain MBS buyers prioritize reduced risk and lower rates, while others opt for higher rates in exchange for assuming greater risk.

To cater to diverse investor preferences, banks divided these securities into tranches. They subsequently sold the low-risk initial years in a tranche with lower rates and the higher-risk later years in a tranche with higher rates. It was possible for a single mortgage to be allocated across multiple tranches, aligning with this stratification.

Example of Tranches

Diverse investors with varying requirements can select from different tranches within the same collateralized mortgage obligation or mortgage-backed security. Consider a scenario where there are four investors seeking a comparable mortgage-backed security but with distinct maturity dates.

The portfolio can be divided into tranches based on these maturity dates, resulting in tranches maturing in one year, five years, and 20 years. An investor with a longer time horizon, not needing immediate access to funds, might opt for the 20-year tranche.

Conversely, retirees in need of short-term liquidity could choose one-year and two-year maturities. An investor who is approaching retirement, with a five-year timeframe, could consider the tranche with a five-year maturity.

Instances of Tranches Featuring Mortgage Loans Tranches provide investors the opportunity to align their investment earnings and income with their specific cash flow requirements. Those requiring immediate funds could invest in shorter-maturity options, while individuals with longer investment horizons might favor longer-maturity tranches. Although tranches can be structured based on maturity and interest rates, they can also be grouped by domestic and international investments.

Noteworthy Developments

During the 1970s, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac introduced mortgage-backed securities. Initially, they purchased loans from banks, which enabled banks to invest further and expanded homeownership opportunities.

In 1999, the landscape of banking underwent a profound transformation. The Glass-Steagall Act was repealed by Congress, ushering in a new era. Banks gained the ability to own hedge funds and engage in derivative investments. Institutions offering intricate financial products in a competitive banking sector reaped substantial profits. This deregulation led financial services to drive U.S. economic growth until 2007.

Tranches in the Mortgage Market

Within the mortgage market, tranches represent segmented portions of assets that investors seek to allocate their investments toward. This practice is commonly observed in securitized debt instruments, including Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and asset-backed securities like Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs).

In the context of CMOs, investment banks present tranches comprised of mortgage assets tailored to meet investors’ preferences. These segments encompass different maturity periods, levels of risk, and potential returns. Notably, safer mortgages are associated with lower interest rates, whereas riskier mortgages carry higher interest rates.

Conversely, CDOs encompass a broader range of assets beyond solely mortgage-backed securities. They encompass various types of debts, such as credit card debt, corporate debt, and auto loans. These diverse assets are further divided into tranches, enabling investors to invest based on their individual preferences.

Tranche Disclosures in the Public Sphere

The concept of tranches, specifically pertaining to debt instruments like mortgage loans, gained prominence during the tumultuous period of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Financial institutions bundled tranches of mortgage loans into diverse funds, including mortgage-backed securities, which were marketed to investors seeking interest-based returns.

However, a critical issue arose as numerous credit risks associated with the loans within these funds were inadequately disclosed. Furthermore, the comprehensive composition of the funds’ holdings remained elusive to investors. It was discovered that many of the loans harbored substantially higher risks than had been initially presented. In some instances, credit agencies had assigned significantly elevated credit ratings to funds containing subprime mortgages—loans extended to higher-risk borrowers with limited or poor credit histories. Remarkably, a few funds even encompassed below investment-grade assets, such as junk bonds.

The crisis reached its zenith in 2008 when the U.S. housing market plummeted. A multitude of subprime mortgage loans defaulted, leading to nonpayment. Consequently, those who had invested in these funds housing tranches of mortgage loans were confronted with substantial financial losses.


  • What is the tranching of credit risk?

  • What is the payment of the tranche?

  • What is tranched financing?

  • What is a term loan tranche?

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