When Rates are Zero, Derivatives Make Every Basis Point Count

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.

Five Derivatives Safety Tips: Accessing Power While Maintaining Peace of Mind

derivatives-8-20-19.pngWe don’t buy products; we “hire” products to get a job done. For banks, interest rate swaps are often just the thing they need to accomplish their most important work.

As Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Leavitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” For banks needing to balance the blend of fixed- and floating-rate loans and deposits on their books, no product gets the job done more effectively than an interest rate swap.

Yet, because swaps carry the label of derivative, many community banks are hesitant to engage them — similar to a first-time homeowner on a DIY project avoiding power tools due to fear of injury or lack of knowledge. To maintain peace of mind while accessing the power of interest rate derivatives, community banks should keep these five safety tips in mind:

1. Finding the Derivative
The most-compelling benefit of an interest rate swap is that everyone gets what they want: the borrower enjoys a 10-year fixed rate, the bank maintains a floating yield. If a program offers this benefit in a “derivative-free” package, there is likely an interest rate swap hiding beneath the surface.

Transparency is essential in creating a safe work environment. Maybe my bank is not a party to a derivative, but what about my Main Street borrower? Safety begins with understanding the mechanics and the parties to any rate swap that might be present.

2. Understanding Derivative Pricing
Because the parties that assist community banks with swaps are typically compensated by building extra basis points into the final swap rate, it is important to have a basic understanding of derivative pricing to remain injury-free. When it comes to swap rates, not all basis points are created equal.

Just like the price/yield relationship with a fixed-income security, the “price value” of each basis point in an interest rate swap is a function of both notional amount and maturity term. So, while an extra five basis points would amount to $2,250 on a $1 million swap for a 5 year/25-year commercial mortgage, the value of fees would grow to $40,000 if the five extra basis points were embedded into a $10 million loan with a 10 year/25-year structure. Community banks should understand the amount of compensation built into each transaction in order to remain out of harm’s way.

3. Documenting with ISDA
The International Swaps and Derivatives Association has been standardizing over-the-counter derivatives market practices for the past 40 years, since the infancy of swaps. One of its first projects was designing the document framework known today as the ISDA Master Agreement, or “The ISDA” for short. Sometimes maligned for its length and complexity, the ISDA is often overlooked as a valuable safety shield for community banks who value simplicity.

Although originally built “by Wall Street for Wall Street,” the ISDA is carefully designed to protect both parties in a derivative relationship, defines key terms and sets forth remedies for a non-defaulting party should the other party fail to perform. Since it is recognized across the globe as the industry-standard, engaging in swaps without the protection of the ISDA can be hazardous.

4. Determining Collateral for Counterparty Risk
Counterparty risk, or the risk that an interest rate swap provider will fail to honor its obligations in the contract, can be mitigated by holding cash or securities as collateral. Before 2008, large banks and dealers required community banks to post collateral to secure their risk but were unwilling to reciprocate. The resulting damage caused by the failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings led to a self-imposed shift in market practices, whereby collateral terms in most swap relationships today are bilateral. Community banks considering using derivatives should seize this opportunity to hold collateral as a precautionary measure for the unexpected.

5. Utilizing Hedge Accounting
Embracing the recently updated hedge accounting standard is the final key to reducing the risk and volatility associated with these tools. With recent changes, the Financial Accounting Standards Board has succeeded in delivering what it promises on the cover of its now-mandatory update to ASC 815: “Targeted Improvements to Accounting for Hedging Activities.” One key improvement that helps protect community banks is the added ability to hedge portfolios of fixed-rate assets. That, when paired with more flexibility in application, has transformed hedge accounting from foe to friend for banks.

By taking heed of these five safety tips, community banks and their boards of directors can confidently consider adding interest rate derivatives to their risk management tool kits.