Interest rate risk? What interest rate risk?

27 Oct


Growth in the third quarter of 2016 seems to be on track to remain consistent with that of Q2, at the identical figure of 2.1%. Which will doubtless engender much self-congratulatory patting of backs among the BOE’s Monetary Policy Committee, for steering the country through a potential capacity surplus and dip in employment. Do they really deserve this round of applause?

There is an opinion held in some quarters that central bank control is the main obstacle standing in the way of the perfect equilibrium that would be achieved if interest rates were allowed to compete in a free market. While I do not necessarily believe that free-market capitalism always acts in favour of the greatest good of the greatest number of people, the tried-and-tested sticking plaster of QE does not reach the deeper systemic problems – something the BOE itself admits.

As well as announcing the continuation of its asset repurchase policy (quantitative easing), the BOE’s Monetary Policy Committee decided in August to cut bank rate to a growth-stimulating – at least in theory – 0.25%. The negative effect this would have on bank’s lending profit margins they hoped would be countered by the Term Funding Scheme (TFS) they were offering to institutions affected.

They elaborated in the August Inflation Report that “the Term Funding Scheme (TFS)… will provide funding for banks at interest rates close to Bank Rate.  This monetary policy action should help reinforce the transmission of the reduction in Bank Rate to the real economy to ensure that households and firms benefit from the MPC’s actions.  In addition, the TFS provides participants with a cost-effective source of funding to support additional lending to the real economy, providing insurance against the risk that conditions tighten in bank funding markets.”

This is all very good and of noble intention, but it is doubtful this alone would counteract the many factors acting against the free lending by banks to needy applicants. For one, the alternative finance market is proving serious competition, as the nimbler new competitors are far more proactive in sourcing customers, using sophisticated data analysis to find leads; and their pricing algorithms bypass the more thorough risk profiling traditional banks undergo. In addition, they often avoid taking direct liability for issuing the loans, doing this instead through partner banks. By keeping their balance sheets free of these liabilities, they avoid the imposition of different tiered capital ratios along the lines of Basel III.

Let’s get Specific

Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book (IRRBB) is a quantified metric which is itself the subject of constant, international regulatory scrutiny. In a report released April 2016, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision succinctly explains the complex relationship between different loan products:

IRRBB arises because interest rates can vary significantly over time, while the business of banking typically involves intermediation activity that produces exposures to both maturity mismatch (e.g. long-maturity assets funded by short-term liabilities) and rate mismatch (e.g. fixed rate loans funded by variable rate deposits). In addition, there are optionalities embedded in many of the common banking products (e.g. non-maturity deposits, term deposits, fixed rate loans) that are triggered in accordance with changes in interest rates.”

An option is linked to a specified contingency which, if occurring, gives you the right but not the obligation to exercise that option. For example if you end up stuck with a loan at 4% interest which was originated when base interest rates were at 1.2%, and then base interest falls to 0.5%, your interest payments will be overpriced relative to the rest of the market. The option might specify that if interest rates fall below a certain point, you can choose to switch to a floating-rate linked to a benchmark like LIBOR. (London Interbank Offered Rate, administered by ICE or IntercontinentalExchange group)

Definitions, definitions, definitions

‘Option risk’ is just one of three defined types of interest rate risk that can occur; the others being ‘gap risk’ and ‘basic risk’. Automatic option risk is when an optionality is included as part of a synthetic product, be it an asset, liability and/ or off-balance sheet item. Behavioural option risk is where the change in cash flow results from the autonomous human decision to exercise an option.

So-called gap risk describes the shortfall that arises when banks’ debt instruments undergo rate changes which occur at different times. Some loans, particularly for construction or infrastructure projects, are staggered so interest payments increase towards the end of the loan’s duration, as during the early set-up phase there is little to no cash flow or income.

Basis risk is classified as the impact of relative changes in interest rates between instruments which are linked to different pricing benchmarks; say for EM bonds over Treasuries, which are priced by different market factors and whose basis points might change at different rates, though their tenors are the same. One might even be used to hedge the other, and basis risk quantifies the effectiveness – or not – of this hedge.

The regulator admitted it was having difficulty persuading banks to fully assess the IR risk on their books, as in their internal assessments they tended to focus on earnings measures over the period under review, rather than economic value measures which examine assets and liabilities right until their expiration. In their guidance the Basel supervisory committee stressed the importance of having both types of assessment compliment each other.

If the late troubles of Deutsche Bank are any indicator, it is that banks can struggle to reconcile their regulatory obligations with taking on high enough risk assets to turn a viable profit. That, and the importance of having a smoothly running infrastructure and back-end. On the other hand, JP Morgan’s recent triumphant quarter shows you can make a killing out of trading bonds, if you know what you are doing.



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