I hear a lot about CDSs (Credit Default Swap) and I not really know what they are. Can you please explain it to me? What are they good for?
From my understanding, a CDS is a financial product to buy protection against an event of "default" (default of payment).
Example: if General Motors owes me money $10,000,000 (because I own GM bonds for example) and I wish to protect myself against the event of GM not repaying the money they owe me (event called "credit default"), I pay FinancialCompany_X (the seller of the CDS) perhaps $250,000 per year against the promise that FinancialCompany_X will pay me in case GM is not paying me. This way I protected myself against that risk. FinancialCompany_X took the risk (against money).
A CDS is in fact an insurance. Except they don't call it an insurance which enabled the financial industry to avoid the regulation that applies to insurances.
There is a lot of infos here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap
A Credit Default Swap (CDS) is a contract between two parties.
A useful analogy is insurance (but by no means exact). I pay a quarterly premium in order to insure myself against another event. In this case, it might be that I own some IBM Bonds. I am happy to own those bonds, and like the "coupon" that they pay me. But I am a little worried about IBM going bankrupt. So I can find someone willing to sell me a CDS. So long as I keep up my "premium" payments, if IBM goes into default on their bonds, I get a payout.
This analogy does break down at a couple of levels. Firstly there is no requirement that I have to own the IBM bond in the first place. I can in effect then "take a view" on IBM going into default by purchasing a CDS without owning the underlying asset.
Also in the real insurance world, there are various capital requirements that the companies have to adhere to, while CDS market, being essentially unregulated has none.
So to summarize, and while The Pedia has a pretty good article, they are good both to hedge your bet (i.e. protect your actual owned asset) or as a speculative tool to take a "view" on the likelihood of a company to go bankrupt.