The elephant in the room: What happens to earnings, funding costs and liquidity if the Fed aggressively tightens? It’s time to acknowledge the need for contingent hedging plans and evaluate how to manage risk while remaining profitable in a flat or rising rate environment.
For the past several years, the banking industry has faced significant earnings challenges. Profitability has been under pressure due to increases in nonaccruals, credit losses, new regulatory costs and the low rate environment. Some banks have responded by cost cutting, but community banks do not have as much flexibility in this regard, especially if they are committed to a level of service that distinguishes community banks from larger banking institutions. Among the risks community banks face today are:
Margin compression from falling asset yields and funding costs that are at their lowest.
Interest rate risk. Borrowers are seeking fixed rates at longer and longer terms. The fixed term necessary to win the loan often may create unacceptable interest rate risk to the bank.
Irregular loan growth has often lead to increased competition for available borrowers with good credit.
To meet the challenge of generating positive earnings at more desirable levels, most community banks lengthened asset maturities while shortening liabilities. This resulted in some temporary margin stabilization, provided short term rates stay where they are, in exchange for higher risk profile if rates rise. The strategy has generally worked for approximately the last five years, but the question is for how much longer can we expect this to continue to work? In my opinion, community banks need more robust risk management programs to manage these risks and, in response, many have increasingly turned to swaps and other hedging solutions.
One competitive solution commercial lenders are employing is loan level hedging. This is a program where the bank will use an interest rate swap to hedge on a loan by loan basis. An interest rate swap is a hedging instrument that is used to convert a fixed rate to floating or vice versa. Loan level hedging allows the borrower to pay a fixed rate, and the bank to receive a floating rate. There are two simple models:
- Offer a fixed rate loan to the borrower and immediately swap the fixed rate to floating with a dealer. The loan coupon would be set at a rate that would swap to a spread over LIBOR that would meet the bank’s return target.
- Offer a floating rate loan and an interest rate swap to the borrower. The borrower’s swap would convert the floating rate on the loan to fixed. Simultaneously, the bank would enter into an offsetting rate swap with a dealer. This model is usually referred to as a “back to back” or “matched book.”
In my view, these solutions help the community bank compete with dealers, regional banks, and rival community banks. These models have been around for decades and their acceptance and use among community banks has increased dramatically over the last several years. Their benefits include:
They protect margins by improving asset/liability position through floating rates on commercial assets. They may enhance borrower credit quality by reducing borrower sensitivity to rising rates.
They diversify product lines and level the playing field versus larger commercial lenders and community banks in your market who offer hedging alternatives.
They are accounting friendly. Banks should always be aware of accounting treatment before entering any hedging strategy. The accounting treatment for loan level hedges is normally friendly and often does not create any income statement ineffectiveness.
They create fee income. When properly administered, a swap program may provide the bank a good opportunity to generate fee income with no additional personnel or systems costs.
Swaps and other derivatives may provide an immediate solution without the need for restructuring the balance sheet or changing your lending and funding programs. If you haven’t considered interest rate hedging before, you should consider contacting a dealer you trust for a discussion.