It’s been one quarter after another of surprises from the
Federal Reserve Board.

After shocking many forecasters in 2019 by making three
quarter-point cuts to its benchmark interest rate target, the data-dependent Fed
was widely thought to be on hold entering 2020. But the quick onset of the
coronavirus pandemic hitting the United States in March 2020 quickly rendered
banks’ forecasts for stable rates useless. The Fed has acted aggressively to
provide liquidity, sending its benchmark back to the zero-bound range, where
rates last languished from 2008 to 2015.

During those seven years of zero percent interest rates,
banks learned two important lessons:

  1. The impact of a single basis point change in the yield of an asset or the rate paid on a funding instrument is more material when starting from a lower base. In times like these, it pays to be vigilant when considering available choices in loans and investments on the asset side of the balance sheet, and in deposits and borrowings on liability side.
  2. Even when we think we know what is going to happen next, we really don’t know. There was an annual chorus in the early and mid-2010s: “This is the year for higher rates.” Everyone believed that the next move would certainly be higher than the last one. In reality, short-rates remained frozen near zero for years, while multiple rounds of quantitative easing from the Fed pushed long-rates lower and the yield curve flatter before “lift off” finally began in 2015.

The most effective tools to capture every basis point and trade uncertainty for certainty are interest rate derivatives. Liquidity and funding questions have taken center stage, given the uncertainty around loan originations, payment deferrals and deposit flows. In the current environment, banks with access to traditional swaps, caps and floors can separate decisions about rate protection from decisions about  funding/liquidity and realize meaningful savings in the process.

To illustrate: A bank looking to access the wholesale
funding market might typically start with fixed-rate advances from their Federal
Home Loan Bank. These instruments are essentially a bundled product consisting
of liquidity and interest rate protection benefits; the cost of each component
is rolled into the quoted advance rate. By choosing to access short-term
funding instead, a bank can then execute an interest rate swap or cap to hedge
the re-pricing risk that occurs each time the funding rolls over. Separating
funding from rate protection enables the bank to save the liquidity premium
built into the fixed-rate advance.

Some potential benefits of utilizing derivatives in the
funding process include:

  • Using a swap can save an estimated 25 to 75 basis points compared to the like-term fixed-rate advance.
  • In early April 2020, certain swap strategies tied to 3-month LIBOR enabled banks to access negative net funding costs for the first reset period of the hedge.
  • Swaps have a symmetric prepayment characteristic built-in; standard fixed-rate advances include a one-way penalty if rates are lower.
  • In addition to LIBOR, swaps can be executed using the effective Fed Funds rate in tandem with an overnight borrowing position.
  • Interest rate caps can be used to enjoy current low borrowing rates for as long as they last, while offering the comfort of an upper limit in the cap strike.

Many community banks that want to compete for fixed-rate loans with terms of 10 years or more but view derivatives as too complex have opted to engage in indirect/third-party swap programs. These programs place their borrowers into a derivative, while remaining “derivative-free” themselves. In addition to leaving significant revenue on the table, those taking this “toe-in-the-water” approach miss out on the opportunity to utilize derivatives to reduce funding costs. 

While accounting concerns are the No. 1 reason cited by community banks for avoiding traditional interest rate derivatives, recent changes from the Financial Accounting Standards Board have completely overhauled this narrative. For banks that have steered clear of swaps – thinking they are too risky or not worth the effort – an education session that identifies the actual risks while providing solutions to manage and minimize those risks can help a board and management team separate facts from fears and make the best decision for their institution.

With the recent return to rock-bottom interest rates, maintaining a laser focus on funding costs is more critical than ever. A financial institution with hedging capabilities installed in the risk management toolkit is better equipped to protect its net interest margin and make every basis point count.


Bob Newman