Avoiding Pitfalls of Covid-19 Modifications for Swapped Loans

Many banks are modifying commercial loans as they and their commercial borrowers grapple with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Payment relief could include incorporating interest-only periods, principal and interest payment deferrals, and/or loan and swap maturity/amortization extensions. While modifications can provide borrowers with much-needed financial flexibility, they also risk creating unintended accounting, legal and economic consequences.

Don’t forget the swaps
Lenders need to determine whether there is a swap associated with loans when contemplating a modification. Prior to modification, lenders should coordinate efforts with their Treasury or swap desk to address these swapped loans, and ensure that loan and swap documentation are consistent regarding the terms of the modification.

Develop realistic repayment plans
Lenders need to consider how deferred obligations will be repaid when creating a temporary payment deferral plan. The lender may need to offer an interest-only period so a borrower can repay the deferred interest before principal amortization resumes, or deferred interest payments could be added to the principal balance of the loan. Lenders also should consider whether the proposed modification will be sufficient, given the severity of the borrower’s challenges. The costs associated with amending a swapped loan may convince a lender to offer a more substantive longer-term deferral, rather than repeatedly kicking the can down the road with a series of short-term fixes.

Determine whether swap amendment is necessary
The modified loan terms may necessitate an amendment of the associated swap. It may be possible to leave the swap in place without amendment if you are only adding an interest-only period, as long as the borrower is comfortable with their loan being slightly underhedged. But if you are contemplating a full payment deferral, it typically will be desirable to replace the existing swap transaction with a new forward-starting transaction commencing when the borrower is expected to resume making principal and interest payments.

Understand bank or borrower hedge accounting impact of loan modifications
Lenders often hedge the value of their fixed-rate loans or other assets through formalized hedging programs. A popular strategy has been to designate these swaps as fair value hedges using the shortcut method.

This method requires that the economic terms of the asset, such as amortization of principal and timing of interest payments, precisely match those of the hedge. A mismatch due to a loan payment deferral would cause the lender to lose the hedge’s shortcut status. The lender’s hedging program potentially could maintain hedge accounting treatment using the more cumbersome long-haul method if that mismatch scenario was contemplated in the hedge inception documentation.

Borrowers who have taken variable rate loans may have entered into swaps to gain synthetic rate protection. Restructuring  a hedge to defer payments alongside the loan’s deferred payments could jeopardize an accounting-sensitive borrower’s hedge accounting treatment. It is possible for the borrower to reapply hedge accounting under the amended terms, although the restart has additional considerations compared to a new un-amended hedge. If hedge accounting is not restarted, the derivative’s valuation changes thereafter would create earnings volatility per accounting rules. While borrowers should be responsible for their own accounting, lenders’ awareness of these potential issues will only help client relationships in these uncertain times.

Take stock of counterparty derivative exposure
As interest rates plunge to record lows, many lenders have seen their counterparty exposure climb well above initially-approved limits. Hedge modifications may further exacerbate this situation by increasing or extending counterparty credit exposure. We recommend that lenders work with their credit teams to reassess their counterparty exposure and update limits.

Accounting guidance also requires the evaluation of credit valuation adjustments to customer swap portfolios. Lenders should ensure that their assumptions about the creditworthiness of their counterparties reflect current market conditions. These adjustments could also have a material impact on swap valuations.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Hopefully, loan modifications will give borrowers the opportunity to regain their financial footing. However, some may face continued financial challenges after the crisis. Lenders should use the modification process to prepare for potential defaults. Loan deferments or modifications should provide for the retention of the lender’s rights to declare a default under the loan documents and any swap agreements. The lender, through consultation with its credit team, may want to take this opportunity to bolster its position through the inclusion of additional guarantors or other credit enhancements.

The economic fallout from the global pandemic continues to have a profound impact upon borrowers and lenders alike. Adopting a thoughtful approach to loan modifications, especially when the financing structure includes a swap or other hedge, may make the process a little less disruptive for all.  

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.

Community Banks and Derivatives: Debunking the Four Biggest Myths


derivatives-4-8-19.pngThose of us who were in banking when Ronald Reagan entered the White House remember the interest rate rollercoaster ride brought about by the Federal Reserve when it aggressively tightened the money supply to tame inflation. It was during this era of unprecedented volatility that interest rate swaps, caps and floors were introduced to help financial institutions keep their books in balance. But over the years, opaque pricing, unnecessary complexity and misuse by speculators led Richard Syron, former chairman of the American Stock Exchange, to observe, “Derivative. That’s the 11-letter four-letter word.”

As community banks bought into Syron’s “D-word” conclusion and resolved to avoid their use altogether, several providers fed these fears and designed programs that promise a derivative-free balance sheet. But many banks are beginning to question the effectiveness of these solutions.

Today, as commercial borrowers seek long-term, fixed-rate funding for 10 years and longer, risk-averse community banks want to know how to solve this term mismatch problem in a responsible and sustainable manner. The fact that Syron voiced his opinion on derivatives in 1995 suggests that now might be a good time to examine the roots of “derivative-phobia,” by considering what has changed in the past quarter-century and challenging four frequently heard biases against community banks using swaps.

1. None of my community bank peers use interest rate derivatives.
If you are not hedging with swaps, and your total assets are between $500 million and $1 billion, then you are in good company: More than nine out of ten of your peers have also avoided their use.

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But if your bank is larger, or your growth plans anticipate crossing the $1 billion asset level, more than one in four of your new peers use swaps.

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Once your bank crosses the $2 billion mark, more than half of your peers manage interest rate risk with derivatives, and institutions not using swaps become a shrinking minority.

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Community banks should consider their growth path and the best practices of their expected peer group before dismissing out-of-hand the use of derivatives.

2. The derivatives market is a big casino, and swaps are always a bet.
While some firms (AIG in 2008, for example) have used complex derivatives to speculate, a vanilla swap designed to neutralize a bank’s natural risks operates as a hedge. Post-crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act brought more transparency to swap pricing, as swap dealers are now required to disclose the wholesale cost of the swap to their customers. In addition, most dealers are now willing to operate on a bilateral secured basis, removing most of the counterparty risk that the trading partners of Lehman Brothers experienced firsthand when that company collapsed. These changes in market practices have made it much more practical for community banks to execute simple hedging transactions at fair prices with manageable credit risk.

3. Derivatives accounting always results in unwanted surprises and volatility.
Derivatives missteps led to FAS 133—regarding the measurement of derivative instruments and hedging activities—being issued in 1998, bringing the fair value of derivatives out of the footnotes and onto the balance sheet for the first time. But the standard (now ASC 815) proved difficult to apply, leading to some notable financial restatements in the early 2000s. Fast forward nearly twenty years, and the Financial Accounting Standards Board has issued an overhaul to hedge accounting (ASU 2017-12) that is a game-changer for community banks. With mandatory adoption in 2019, there are more viable ways to solve the age-old mismatch facing banks. And the addition of fallback provisions, combined with improvements to “the shortcut method,” greatly reduces the risk of unexpected earnings volatility.

4. ISDA documents should always be avoided.
While admittedly lengthy, the Master Agreement published by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association was designed to protect both parties to a derivative contract and is the industry standard for properly documenting an interest rate swap. Many community banks seeking an ISDA-free solution for their customers are actually placing the borrower into a lightly-documented derivative with an unknown third-party. If a borrower is not sophisticated enough to read and sign the ISDA Master Agreement, they have no business executing a swap in the first place. A simpler solution is to make a fixed-rate loan and execute a swap behind the scenes to neutralize the interest rate risk. This keeps the swap and the agreement between two banks, and removes the borrower from the derivative altogether.

For community banks that have been trying to solve their mismatch problem in a manner that is derivative-free, it is worth re-examining the factors that have led to pursuing a derivatives-avoidance strategy, and counting the costs and hidden exposures involved in doing so.

Derivatives Education for Boards: Weighing the Whys Along With the Why Nots


swaps-7-12-17.pngWell-documented stories of speculators using derivative structures to gamble and lose their firms’ capital, along with Warren Buffett tagging them as “financial weapons of mass destruction” have made interest rate swaps a non-starter for many community banks. It seems that the preponderance of evidence against derivatives has led many community bank boards to view the issue as an open and shut case, rather than carefully considering all of the facts before passing judgment on these instruments. But questioning the four most common objections to swaps uncovers some overlooked truths that may motivate your board to take a fresh look at derivatives.

1. I know someone who lost money on a swap…but why?
Putting aside situations where derivatives were sold inappropriately, the claim, “I know a customer who got burned using a swap,’’ is simply the banker stating that the borrower utilized an interest rate swap to lock in borrowing costs. A borrower who chose the certainty offered by a swap over uncertain variable interest payments ultimately paid more because interest rates went down instead of up, and then stayed low. In reality, the borrower was burned by the falling rate environment while the interest rate swap performed exactly as advertised, providing known debt service, albeit higher than the prevailing rates. It looked like a bad deal only with 20-20 hindsight.

With the Federal Reserve now moving short-term rates higher while market yields remain close to historic lows, the odds begin to favor the borrower who uses a swap to hedge against rising rates. Whether or not the swap pays off, the certainty that it delivers becomes more attractive as rates become volatile and their future path remains uncertain.Federal-Funds-Rate.png

2. Regulators don’t want community banks using swaps…or do they?
When looking at the topic of interest rate risk, regulators began sounding alarm bells for banks in the years following the crisis on the premise that there was nowhere to go but up for rates. In a 2013 letter to constituents, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) re-emphasized the importance of prudent interest rate risk oversight and issued this warning:

“Boards of directors and management are strongly encouraged to analyze exposure to interest rate volatility and take action as necessary to mitigate potential financial risk.”

When it came to outlining mitigation strategies in this letter, rather than banning derivatives as intrinsically risky, the FDIC specifically mentioned hedging as a viable option. They did, however, sound a note of caution:

“…institutions should not undertake derivative-based hedging unless the board of directors and senior management fully understand these instruments and their potential risks [emphasis our own].”

Compared with other risk management tactics, derivatives offer superior agility and capital efficiency along with new avenues to reduce funding costs. Accordingly, it may behoove banks to heed the FDIC’s exhortation and implement derivatives education for directors and senior management.

3. My peers don’t use swaps…why should I?Swaps.PNG

If you are not hedging with swaps and your total assets are between $500 million and $1 billion then you are in good company; seven out of eight banks your size have also avoided their use. But if your growth plans anticipate crossing the $1 billion asset level, more than one in four of your new peers will be using swaps. Once you cross the $2 billion mark more than half of your peers will be managing interest rate risk with derivatives, while institutions not using swaps become a shrinking minority. For the many institutions serving small communities and not expecting to cross the $500 million asset level in the foreseeable future, derivatives are not typically a viable solution. But if your growth will soon push you into a new group of peers with more than $2 billion in assets on the balance sheet, then having interest rate swaps in the risk management tool kit will become the norm among your competitors.

4. Our board doesn’t need derivatives education…or do we?
After digging below the surface we learn that most of the instances where derivatives left a bad aftertaste were caused by an unexpected drop in rates rather than a product flaw. We also learn that in urging banks to take action to mitigate interest rate risk, the regulators are not anti-derivative per se; they simply lay out the reasonable expectation that the board and senior management must fully understand the strategy before executing. Taking the time to educate your board on the true risks as well as the many benefits provided by interest rate hedging products may help to distinguish them as powerful tools rather than dangerous weapons.

Proposed Accounting Changes Should Make Hedging More Attractive to Community Banks


interest-rate-risk-3-31-17.pngIn the regular course of business, banks are exposed to market risks from movements in interest rates, foreign currencies and commodities. Many banks respond by utilizing over the counter derivative instruments to hedge against volatility. Under current accounting standards, banks must account for derivatives under the ASC 815 (formerly FAS 133) models.

There are three hedge accounting “models” under ASC 815: 1) cash flow, 2), fair value, 3) and net investment hedging. There are specific times when one model is required over the others, and the mechanics of each are different in many ways. Because of its breadth, hedge accounting could be seen as intimidating and difficult to understand. There have been instances where banks made mistakes in their adherence to hedge accounting which resulted in income statement volatility. As a result, the perception hedge accounting is difficult and fraught with potential danger has discouraged many banks from entertaining derivative solutions

On September 8, 2016, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) submitted a proposed draft to update hedge accounting. Specifically, the draft seeks to better align a bank’s economic results with its financial reporting and simplify hedge accounting.

The proposed changes appear to better align the accounting rules with a bank’s risk management objectives and simplifies some important items of ASC 815. Many of the existing rules remain unchanged, but the proposed changes should produce greater interest in the use of derivative solutions among community banks.

Specifically, the proposal for improving how economic results are portrayed on financial statements includes:

  • Expanding the use of component hedging for both nonfinancial and financial risks.
  • Adding the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) Municipal Swap Rate as an eligible benchmark interest rate for fair value accounting in the United States.
  • Eliminating the separate measurement and reporting of hedge “ineffectiveness,” a concept that has been difficult for companies to explain and for readers of financial statements to understand.
  • Requiring for cash flow and net investment hedges that all changes in fair value of the hedging instrument included in the hedging relationship be deferred in other comprehensive income and released to the income statement in the period(s) when the hedged item affects earnings.
  • Requiring that changes in the fair value of hedging instruments be recorded in the same income statement line item as the earnings effect of the hedged item.
  • Requiring enhanced disclosures to highlight the effect of hedge accounting on individual income statement line items.

Highlights of the Proposed Changes Most Likely to Affect Financial Institutions

The proposal also includes some ways to simplify hedge accounting, including the following:

  • Providing more time for the completion of initial quantitative assessments of hedge effectiveness.
  • Allowing subsequent assessments of hedge effectiveness to be performed on a qualitative basis when an initial quantitative test is required.
  • Clarifying the use of what’s known as the critical terms match method for a group of forecasted transactions.
  • Allowing an institution that erred in using the shortcut method to continue hedge accounting by using a “long-haul” method.

“Whatcha Gonna Do When the Fed Raises Rates on You?”


interest-rate-9-9-16.pngThe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.