What a difference a year makes. Spring 2020 was like nothing we had ever seen: scheduled gatherings were cancelled and economic activity came to a screeching halt.
Yet today, after a year highlighted by social distancing, lockdowns and restrictions, there is a sense of anticipation that feels like a wave of pent-up demand ready to break-out, much like the buds on a flowering tree. Loans last year saw the prime rate plunge to 3.25% from its recent peak of 5%, as the Federal Reserve pushed its target back to zero to help keep the economy afloat. Banks and credit unions that built up significant portfolios of variable-rate loans experienced the pain of this unexpected rate shock in the form of margin compression.
But as flowers begin to bloom this spring, there is very little hope that short-term rates will follow suit. The Federal Open Market Committee signaled at its mid-March meeting that it expects to maintain a near-zero Fed Funds target all the way through 2023 with a goal of seeing inflation rise to more normal levels. For lenders holding floating-rate assets, waiting until the 2024 presidential primary season to experience any benefit from higher yields might seem unbearable. And with the sting of last year’s free fall still fresh, the prospect of slow and steady quarter-point bumps thereafter is not appealing.
Interestingly, there is a different story playing out when we examine the yields on longer-dated bonds. Because inflation erodes the future value of fixed-income coupon payments, bond market investors have grown nervous about the Fed’s increased desire and tolerance for rising prices. Consequently, while short-term rates have remained anchored, 10-year bond yields have surged by a full percentage point in less than six months, creating a sharply steeper yield curve. This is excellent news for asset-sensitive institutions that have interest rate hedging capabilities in their risk management toolkits. Rather than simply accepting their fate and holding onto low-yielding floating-rate assets in hopes the Fed will move earlier than expected, banks with access to swaps can execute a strategy that creates an immediate positive impact on net interest margin.
To illustrate, consider an asset-sensitive institution with a portfolio of prime-based loans. Using an interest rate swap, the lender can elect to pay away the prime-based interest payments currently at a 3.25% yield and receive back fixed interest payments based on the desired term of the swap. As of March 23, 2021, those fixed rates would be 3.90% for 5 years, 4.25% for 7 years, and 4.50% for 10 years. So, with no waiting and no “ramp,” the loans in question would instantly increase in yield by 0.65%, 1% or 1.25% for 5, 7 and 10 years, respectively, once the swap economics are considered.
The trade-off for receiving this immediate yield boost is that the earning rate remains locked for the term of the swap. In other words, when prime is below the swap rate (as it is on Day One) the lender accrues interest at the higher fixed rate; when prime exceeds the swap rate, the lender sacrifices what is then the higher floating-rate yield.
This strategy uses a straightforward “vanilla” interest rate swap, with a widely used hedge accounting designation. For banks that have avoided balance sheet hedging due to complexity concerns, an independent advisor can help with the set-up process that will open the door to access this simple but powerful tool.
In the days following March 2020 we often heard that “the only thing certain in uncertain times is uncertainty.” With swaps in the toolkit, financial institutions have the power to convert uncertain interest flows to certain, taking control of the margin and managing exposure to changing interest rates in a more nimble and thoughtful manner.