Investors have always sought better returns for greater risk. Longer investment horizons are associated with a higher amount of risk driven by uncertainty. In the fixed income markets, this translates to higher yields for longer maturities to compensate investors for the risk, thus creating what is called the yield curve. The yield curve has a positive slope in a normal market. The curve can also be flat or even inverted, which typically indicate transitionary periods in the market. That said, interest rate troughs usually do not last more than seven years, and central banks normally do not pump trillions of dollars into global markets as they have over the last several years. With protracted recovery and extreme monetary policy measures, this dreaded flat yield curve seems to be here for a while.
Banks’ primary earning power is largely driven by net interest margin, which is impacted by the shape of the yield curve and the ability to manage interest rate risk. It is prudent to perform non-parallel rate simulations on a regular basis, and regulators require this type of analysis. These simulations should be reviewed with management and saved for future use. Given the protracted flat yield curve environment, banks are feeling margin compression. If you have not done so, it may be time to retrieve these reports, understand if and where risk is impacting your balance sheet and manage your margin accordingly.
There are a number of ways a flat yield curve can negatively impact interest rate margins. Liquidity pressure is often at the top of the list in a rising rate environment. We have seen seven upward moves in the target fed funds rate since the bottom of the recovery, a total of 175 basis points. Depositors are hungrily pursuing newfound interest income. Most banks have had to follow suit and raise deposit rates. On the asset side of the balance sheet, fixed-rate loan yields have remained relatively stagnant. A typical rate on a 20-year amortizing 5-year balloon, owner-occupied commercial real estate loan in the $1-million to $5-million range was priced around 4.75 percent during the bottom of the rate trough.
As deposit rates have risen, banks have had difficulty in pricing the yields on loans of this type much above 5 percent. A third pressure point is the investment portfolio. During a normal yield curve environment, institutions with asset-sensitive balance sheets could earn income by borrowing short-term liabilities and investing at higher yields further out on the curve. Given the tightness of spreads along the curve where typical banks invest, there is minimal advantage to implementing this type of a strategy.
Since the issue of margin compression driven by the flat curve is a top concern for those who manage interest rate risk, the better question is what to do about it. Most bankers know it is present but many avoid the potential ramifications. The non-parallel simulation is an important exercise to understand the implications over the next year or so. The bank may even want to consider running a worst-case scenario simulation around an inverted curve as well. From there some strategic deposit pricing can be implemented.
One strategy may be either maintaining a short duration, and hopefully, inexpensive deposit or locking in funds for longer terms, pending balance sheet needs. Locking in longer term funding will come at a cost to the net interest margin unless the curve inverts. The interest rate risk simulation will help answer those types of questions. It is also a good time to look at a loan pricing model. This would help determine whether to continue to compete on price or pass on deals until margins improve. There is even a level that where banks should turn down business. It is important to understand the price point that becomes dilutive to earnings. Finally, there is a point that one stops taking duration risk in the investment portfolio, stays short and prepares to take advantage of future opportunities while reducing price risk.
Although a flat yield curve is not a new market phenomenon, it is currently impacting bank margins and may continue to for the next year or longer. Our Balance Sheet Strategies Group recommends banks consider the use of a detailed, non-parallel simulation to assess the current market and how to position the balance sheet moving forward. In addition to optimizing the interest rate position going forward, this will also help preserve and potentially enhance the interest margin. Every five basis points saved or earned on a $250-million balance sheet will equate to $125,000 in interest rate margin.