Many banks were caught off guard by the rapid pace of interest rate hikes over the past year. Now that the initial shock has hit, bank directors are questioning how to manage interest rate risk better and prepare for disruptions.
While rising rates are part of market cycles, rates rarely increase at their recent velocity. Between March 2022 and June 2023, the federal funds rate rose from 0.25% to 5.25%, a 500-basis point increase in less than 15 months.
A High Velocity Rise Caught Bank Leaders Off Guard
Not since the 1970s have rates increased at this pace in such a short time frame. Even in the cycle preceding the 2008 financial crisis, rates rose from 1% in 2004 to 5.25% in 2006 over 24 months. The latest interest rate hikes are steeper — and come at a time when banks were already awash in cash and liquidity. With excess cash, less loan demand and no place to park their money in recent years, many banks purchased securities, which historically have been a safe bet in such times.
But few boards were prepared for rates to increase so quickly. Since March 2022, continual increases in the federal funds rate have reduced the value of banks’ fixed-rate assets and shortened the maturity of their deposits. Two bank collapses in March 2023 demonstrated how quickly interest rate risk can grow into a liquidity risk and reputation risk.
Bank Directors Can Focus on Strong Governance, Risk Mitigation
Now that they have experienced an unprecedented event, bank directors are questioning what they can do to prepare for future interest rate shocks. But banks don’t necessarily need new risk management strategies. What they should do now is use the risk-mitigating levers available to them and act with strong governance.
Most banks already have asset-liability management committees that meet quarterly to stress test the balance sheet with instantaneous shocks, ramps and nonparallel yield curves. While going through the motions every quarter might appease regulators, it won’t prepare banks for black swan events. Banks need to hold these stress-testing meetings more frequently and make them more than compliance exercises.
In addition, bank directors should review assumptions used in their asset-liability management report packages. Some directors take these assumptions at face value without questioning how they were calculated or if they reflect reality. Yet the output of a model is only as good as the integrity of its underlying conventions or specifications.
Additional Strategies Require a Focus on Execution
Repricing products, changing product mix or employing derivatives can be other effective tools for managing risk. But again, the key is in execution. Some banks fear alienating customers or the community by repricing or changing products that are safer for the bank but might not be preferred by the customer. For example, some institutions prefer to book fixed-rate loans to meet customer demand, even though floating-rate loans might help the bank better manage risk.
While derivatives can add risk if not properly understood and managed, they can be a highly effective tool to manage interest rate risk if used early in the cycle. Once rate changes are underway, a derivative might no longer be helpful or might be cost-prohibitive.
Even as the Federal Reserve contemplates its next move, bank directors can look at the recent past as a learning experience and an opportunity to better prepare for the future.