Are Fixed-Rate Loans the Quick Fix?

Commercial fixed-rate loans can be an alluring quick fix for the net interest margin pressure that many banks face today, but could expose banks to several risks while providing tepid returns.

Future earnings are largely out of the bank’s control. While the current yield of a fixed-rate loan can look attractive relative to the historic lows of short-term funding costs, its long-term return is highly dependent on the future path of short-term interest rates. When interest rates increase, the spread between the yield earned on a fixed-rate loan and the ongoing funding cost for a bank decreases — and could even go negative.

While banks have some control over funding costs, the largest factors that influence short-term funding rates are external: central bank monetary policy, inflation expectations and the overall business cycle. None of these factors are controlled by any individual bank, which means the ongoing net yield of a fixed-rate loan depends on factors outside your bank’s control.

Prepayment penalties often do not protect banks. Bank executives should temper expectations that prepayment penalties protect bank income or influence borrower behavior for fixed-rate loans. Many borrowers negotiate limited prepayment provisions in advance, or ask that prepayment penalties be fully or partially waived when refinancing. Additionally, fixed-rate borrowers are most likely to prepay when refinancing lowers their borrowing cost. These realities mean borrower prepayments often result in the loss of higher-yielding loans with little or no compensation to banks.

Interest rates and prepayments have a unique relationship that can reduce returns. Higher interest rates generally mean higher funding costs and lower prepayments, while lower interest rates result in lower funding costs and higher loan prepayments. In other words, a fixed-rate loan is most likely to remain on-balance sheet when interest rates are high and a bank would prefer it go away, but pay off quickly when interest rates are low and a bank would prefer it stay. This inverse relationship between interest rates and prepayments can significantly reduce the lifetime earnings of a fixed-rate loan.

There are tools to help. Below are some strategies that banks can use to reduce the risks of fixed-rate loans:

  • Consider a customer swap program. Banks can offer borrowers a pay-fixed interest rate swap paired with a floating-rate loan instead of originating a traditional fixed-rate loan. The borrower ends up with a fixed rate; the bank books a floating rate asset that is less sensitive to future interest rate movements. These programs can also be a significant source of non-interest fee income. Modern capital markets technology and advisory companies enable banks of all sizes to offer loan-level hedging programs to qualifying commercial clients.
  • Hedge large deals on a one-off basis. Banks can use an interest rate swap to transform the return of an individual loan from fixed to floating. The borrower maintains a conventional fixed-rate borrowing structure. Separately, the bank executes a pay-fixed swap that effectively converts the loan interest to a variable rate that aligns more closely with its funding costs. While this strategy can be used on any fixed-rate loan, it can be particularly prudent for larger and longer-term transactions.
  • Use longer-duration funding. Banks can borrow for longer terms to match fixed-rate loan maturities, or “match fund,” to reduce interest rate risk. Banks can either issue new longer-term funding vehicles or use interest rate swaps to synthetically convert the maturity of existing short-term funding instruments to longer-duration liabilities. While match funding does not address fixed-rate loan prepayment risks, it does help mitigate some of the earnings risk associated with fixed-rate loans.

How does your bank evaluate fixed-rate loans? Fixed-rate loans are not inherently bad. A well-diversified balance sheet will include a mix of fixed- and floating-rate loans. But originating an outsized portfolio of commercial fixed-rate loans comes with risks that banks should properly evaluate. How is your bank managing the risks associated with fixed-rate loans? Are you booking deals as a quick fix to get through this quarter, or building a safe balance sheet with steady earnings for the future?