Don’t shoot the messenger

We are only a week or so past 30 June (a common balance date for many Hedgebook clients) and already we are fielding questions/comments regarding the big movements in the mark-to-market valuations of our clients’ portfolios. The questions have nothing to do with the accuracy of the valuations but mostly around, “why has this happened?” Many of the big movements relate to our clients that hedge their interest rate risk via interest rate swaps.

It is no surprise given the sharp downward movements we have seen in the New Zealand and Australian yield curves over the last few months (see charts). A 1% move on a 5 year $5 million swap will result in a $250,000 move in the mark-to-market. Depending on the size of your swap portfolio, and the tenor of the swaps, the moves can be material.

NZD swap movements

AUD swap movements

An interest rate swap is a valuable hedging tool which helps companies manage their interest rate risk. Many companies have treasury policies which force them to have a proportion of fixed and floating interest rate risk which helps with certainty of interest cost as well as smoothing sharp interest rate movements, both up and down. However, there is also a requirement to mark-to-market swaps, and for many to post these changes to their profit and loss account. Some companies negate this profit and loss volatility by hedge accounting, but many don’t which often requires some explanation to senior management, directors and investors.

For publicly listed companies the impact, both real and perceived, of large movements in financial instrument valuations is even more critical. The requirement for continuous disclosure means that a large move in these valuations may require the issue of a profit warning, as we have recently seen from Team Talk, the telecommunications company. Team Talk’s shares dropped 6.3% on the back of the hit taken by a revaluation of interest rate swaps. The company noted that the change in the value of the interest rate swap portfolio was due to “wholesale interest rates falling significantly in the period”.

Equally we have a number of private companies and local governments who have been concerned at the change in their valuations and how they are going to be explained further up the tree. Having constant visibility over these changes will at least forearm any difficult conversations, as opposed to relying on the bank’s month end valuations.

Whilst Hedgebook won’t help improve mark-to-market valuations, it does assist with companies keeping abreast of changes in the value of swap portfolios on any given day. This is pretty much a “must have” for publicly listed companies that have the responsibility of continuous disclosure but forewarned is forearmed and many others are also seeing the benefit of having access to mark-to-market valuations at any time.

Why use an interest rate swap and how does it work?

It seems like only yesterday that I started my treasury career at one of NZ’s leading treasury advisory consultants, alas it was closer to 15 years ago. “We advise clients on managing their fx and interest rate exposures”, they said. “We use derivatives such as interest rate swaps to hedge risk”, they said. “Eh?”, I thought!

The financial markets have a lot of jargon but one quickly learns that many of the underlying concepts are quite simple. It is easy to assume people in the finance industry have a more in depth understanding of financial products than they actually do. There are plenty of examples of people who are exposed to interest rate swaps but whose understanding is rudimentary. Examples are young auditors who are coming across financial instruments rarely, or the back office clerk who is settling cashflows. Quite frankly there are also plenty of senior people who one might reasonably expect to have a greater level of understanding of these financial products than they actually do, such as senior auditors and CFOs.

In this article I attempt to explain in simple terms the purpose of an interest rate swap and how it works.

Why use an interest rate swap? When I was first learning about IRSs it was explained to me that they were simply an exchange of cashflows, either fixed for floating or floating for fixed, to hedge interest rate risk. Might as well have been in French for all it meant to me at the time. So I will try and take a step back. To my mind the best way to understand an IRS is by way of an example and the easiest example is that of a borrower who wishes to fix his interest rate exposure. Many of us borrow money from the bank in the form of a mortgage for our home and we choose to lock in the certainty of the interest rate payments by way of fixing the interest rate for a few years. A pretty simple concept. The corporate borrower has a few more options available to them to achieve certainty over interest costs on borrowings. They could borrow on a fixed rate basis very much akin to our residential mortgages. Alternatively, the corporate borrower could borrow from the bank on a floating rate basis and then enter a pay fixed interest rate swap to lock in the interest rate. The outcome is the same, however, the advantage of the IRS is the flexibility it allows the borrower in regards to the term he or she can fix and the flexibility to restructure. In terms of tenor, it is common for a borrower to fix through the IRS market out to ten years or longer. It is much harder, and expensive, to get the bank to fix interest rates long term as the bank needs to be compensated for tying up capital for such an extended period of time. It is also much harder, and expensive, to break debt that has been borrowed on a fixed rate basis, however, restructuring an IRS is a straightforward process and allows the corporate borrower to take advantage of prevailing interest rate market opportunities or “play the yield curve” to use financial market parlance.

How does an IRS work? Explaining how an IRS works requires us to understand the concept of exchanging cashflows. The diagram below represents the cashflows associated with a borrower using an IRS to fix interest costs:

IRS cashflow

 

1) The company borrows money from the bank, say $1 million for our example, on a floating rate basis. There are floating rate benchmarks for different currencies i.e. BKBM in NZ, BBSW in Australia, EURIBOR in Europe, etc. and this floating rate changes/sets every day. The bank will charge a margin on the money it lends, say 2.00%. The effect for the company is it borrows money at floating rate + 2.00%.

2) The company wishes to fix his interest cost and to achieve this enters a pay fixed / receive floating IRS with a bank (maybe the same bank as it has borrowed from, but not necessarily). We will assume the company wishes to fix the entire $1 million i.e. the swap is entered for $1 million. It could just as easily decide to fix only half i.e. $500,000. Herein lies some of the flexibility an IRS allows the company when considering its interest rate risk management profile. Under the terms of the pay fixed swap the borrower will pay the bank a fixed interest rate and receive floating interest from the bank i.e. exchange of cashflows. Note, there is no exchange of principal, only interest.

The floating rate received through the swap offsets the floating rate paid to the bank for the debt. The net impact to the borrower is paying a fixed rate (through the swap) plus the margin the bank charges for borrowing the money (2.00%).

There are some important factors to consider when entering an IRS to ensure the hedge is at its most optimal. The roll-dates of the IRS should match that of the debt i.e. if the floating rate on the debt sets every three months then so should the floating rate on the IRS, and on the same day. The underlying reference rate on the debt and the swap should also match i.e. BKBM, BBSW, EURIBOR, etc. Both of these things ensure there is no “basis risk” within the hedge as well as ensuring it passes muster from a hedge accounting perspective if it is designated into a hedge relationship.

The example above is designed to provide a basic understanding of the concept of an interest rate swap. We have used the floating rate borrower as an example. However, IRSs are used by an array of market participants for a multitude of uses including investors wishing to structure their income profiles or borrowers who have borrowed on a fixed term but wish to have exposure to floating interest rates. However, the underlying concepts are fairly straightforward.

 

Hedge accounting fx options: time versus intrinsic value

FX options make up an element of many companies fx risk management strategies. FX options lock in the certainty of worst case exchange rate outcomes while allowing participation in favourable rate movements. In my experience, companies are often reluctant to write out a cheque for the premium so for many the preferred strategy is collar options. A collar option involves writing, or selling, an fx option simultaneously as buying the fx option in order to reduce premium, often to zero.

After transacting the fx option, the challenge comes for those that are hedge accounting and the requirement to split the valuation of the fx option into time value and intrinsic value. IAS 39 allows the intrinsic value of an fx option to be designated in a hedge relationship and can therefore remain on the balance sheet. The time value of the fx option is recognised through profit or loss.

The intrinsic value of an fx option is the difference between the prevailing market forward rate for the expiry of the fx option versus the strike price. We can use an Australian based exporter to the US as an example. In our example the exporter forward hedged US$1 million of export receipts six months ago (the USD income is due to be received in three months’ time). At the time of hedging the AUD/USD rate was 0.8750 and the nine month forward rate was 0.8580. The company chose to hedge with a nine month zero cost collar[1] (ZCC). Six months’ ago the ZCC might have been as follows:

  • Option 1: Bought USD Put / AUD Call at a strike of 0.9000
  • Option 2: Sold AUD Put / USD Call expiring at a strike of 0.8000

AUD USD

The intrinsic value of each leg of the collar will be determined by the difference in the forward rate at valuation date versus the strike rates. For option 1, the bought option, if the forward rate is above the strike of 0.9000 then the fx option will have positive intrinsic value i.e. it is “in-the-money”. It is important to note that the intrinsic value of a bought fx option cannot be negative. The purchaser, or holder, of the fx option has all of the rights and would not choose to exercise the fx option if the market rate was below the strike price. They would simply choose to walk away from the fx option, let it expire worthless, and transact at the lower market rate.

For the sold fx option the opposite is true. If the forward rate is below the strike price (less than 0.8000 in our example) then the exporter, as the writer of the option, will be exercised upon and the difference between the market rate and the strike rate will be negative intrinsic value. Intrinsic value of a sold fx option cannot be positive.

The time value of an fx option is the difference between the overall fx option valuation and the intrinsic value. By definition, time value is a function of the time left to the expiry of the fx option. The longer the time to expiry, the higher the time value as there is a greater probability of the fx option being exercised. A purchased fx option begins life with positive time value that decays over time to zero. A sold fx option begins life with negative time value and tends to zero by expiry date.

When hedge accounting for fx options the splitting of intrinsic value (balance sheet) and time value (P&L) does not have to be a time consuming exercise. At Hedgebook we like to make life easy so as part of the FX Options Held Report the valuations are automatically split by intrinsic value and time value. The screen shot below shows the HedgebookPro output using our Aussie exporter example. With the significant weakening of the AUD in the last six months we see the zero intrinsic value of the bought option at a strike of 0.9000 and very little time value as there is little chance of the AUD strengthening to above 0.9000 by the time the option expires by 30 June. The sold fx option has a large, negative intrinsic value. The exporter will be exercised upon and have to convert the US$1 million of receipts at AUD/USD 0.8000 versus a market rate of closer to 0.7600. There is a small amount of negative time value.

HedgebookPro FX Options Held Report  

FX Options Held Intrinsic_Time

HedgebookPro’s easy to use Treasury Management System calculates fx option valuations split into intrinsic and time value. This simplifies life for those that already use fx options and hedge account, whilst removing obstacles to hedge accounting for those that perceive the accounting requirements as too hard.

The IASB is looking to remove the requirement to split fx option valuations into intrinsic and time components which will simplify the hedge accounting process further, however, currently this appears to be a 2018 story, unless companies choose to adopt early. In the meantime, HedgebookPro provides an easy to use system to ease the pain of hedge accounting fx options.

[1] Premium received from the sold option offsets the premium paid on the bought option.

Hedge accounting has never been easier

It seems like a lifetime ago since hedge accounting was first introduced, nearly ten years ago now. My how auditors loved it. How complicated could they make it? Very, ,was the answer. How about insisting on regression testing for simple foreign exchange forward contracts or forcing options to be split between time and intrinsic value? No doubt the fees were good for a while but after a decade of hedge accounting the bleeding obvious is that it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, that hard.

Because auditors did over complicate the process the perception was that to hedge account was a time consuming and difficult process to follow and so unless there were very good reasons for doing so many shied away from it. The reality is obviously somewhat different.

Hedge accounting can be simple if you are using plain vanilla instruments and follow some simple, good treasury practices.

We will look at the FX Forwards, FX Options and Interest Rate Swaps to show that anyone can hedge account if they want and it doesn’t need to be difficult or time consuming.

FX Forwards

Let’s take the most simple and commonly used financial instrument, FX Forwards. To achieve hedge accounting you need to match off your expected cashflow or exposure with the FX Forward you have used to hedge this. Given that one of the underlying reasons for hedge accounting is to recognise the difference between hedging and speculating it makes sense that you can identify a cashflow that matches your hedge. More simply than that, assuming you haven’t hedged more than you expect to buy or sell in the foreign currency, the cashflow can be matched exactly against the FX Forward.

Under the standard currently, you need to do a quantitative test to prove the effectiveness of the hedge, ie ensure that the hedge falls between 80% and 125% effectiveness. In practical terms all you need to do is value the FX Forward, which can be easily done through Hedgebook, and then value the cashflow that is allocated against the hedge. To value the cashflow, you create a hypothetical FX Forward which matches the same attributes as the original FX Forward, ie is an exact match. So by valuing the original FX Forward you also have the value of the hypothetical and lo and behold by comparing one to the other the hedge relationship is 100% effective.

If you need to pre-deliver or extend the FX Forward then, as long as this is within a reasonable period (45 days either way is generally accepted) this won’t affect the effectiveness of the hedge.

This method can be used for both the retrospective and prospective methodology.

FX Options

The process is the same for FX Options as it is for FX Forwards in terms of matching the hedge (ie the option) with the cashflow. Again there is only the requirement to value the underlying FX Option and replicate this with the cashflow by creating a hypothetical deal which exactly reflects the details of the original option. As with the FX Forward you then just compare the value of the underlying hedge with the value of the hypothetical option and again it will be 100% effective.

Those sneaky auditors have managed to complicate things by interpreting the current standard as requiring to split out the intrinsic value of the option from the time value. Again Hedgebook can do this calculation automatically which takes the pain away from trying to calculate this rather complex computation. The value of the time value will need to be posted to the Profit and Loss account.

Interest Rate Swaps

Interest rate swaps can be treated largely the same as FX Forwards and options in as much as you need to match the hedge against the exposure. In this case this means matching the swap against the underlying borrowing or investment. Again good treasury management should dictate that the reason you have taken out a swap is to match against the same details of the debt or the investment, in terms of amount and rate set dates.

Assuming that this match is occurring it is again a matter of valuing the swap and creating a hypothetical, in this case of the debt or investment but mirroring the details of the swap. Again this would mean that the relationship is 100%, assuming the hedge matches the exposure.

If there is a difference between the rate set dates and the rollover of the debt or investment then the hypothetical swap can reflect these changes and this means that the two valuations are slightly different but hopefully still well within the 80% to 125% relationship.

Documentation

It is important that the relationship is properly documented. There are plenty of places where you can source the appropriate documentation, with Google being a good place to start. In most cases it is a matter of copying and pasting the specific details of the underlying hedge but the vast majority of the documentation won’t change from deal to deal. A bit of admin but not too hard or onerous.

Summary

Our experience, somewhat surprisingly, has been that more organisations are moving towards hedge accounting. Probably because many are realising that it doesn’t have to be that hard as hopefully we have demonstrated above. This has also been recognised as the introduction of IFRS9 in a few years’ time is simplifying some of the rules which should push more down this path as most would probably prefer not to have the volatility of financial instruments flowing through their Profit and Loss account if they can help it.

It should be noted that hedge accounting can be complex if you are using more exotic instruments or if you are leaning more towards speculation than hedging, however, if you are keeping it simple then it doesn’t need to be onerous. Sure you need to value the financial instruments but if you can do that pretty much you can hedge account. Hedgebook has a number of clients, including publicly listed companies, using this approach. So why don’t you give it a try it might not be the beast you once thought it was.

Quantifying bank counterparty credit spread inputs for CVA

At Hedgebook we are often asked by our clients what the appropriate credit spreads are when calculating CVA (Credit Value Adjustment) under the current exposure method. The current exposure method requires a credit spread over the risk-free rate (swap rates) to determine the discount factor for future Cashflows. The current exposure method is appropriate for calculating credit adjustments for vanilla financial instruments such as foreign exchange forwards and options, and interest rate swaps. If your derivatives are in-the-money then the credit valuation adjustment quantifies the risk of your counterparty defaulting.

One appropriate source for quantifying appropriate credit spreads is the secondary bond market where bank/corporate bonds are traded amongst fixed income participants. The banks are active issuers into this market and as such provide a useful guide to how the market views their credit worthiness. By looking at spreads over swap we can derive a credit term structure to use in the calculation of CVA.

The following table shows the spread over swap for senior bank bonds in the NZ fixed income market. The data has been extracted using the January 2015 month-end corporate bond pricing information from one of the four Australian owned NZ registered trading banks.

  6 mths to
1 yr
1 to 2 yrs 2 to 3 yrs 3 to 4 yrs 4 to 5 yrs
ANZ 20 to 30 bp N/A 42 bp 52 to 59 bp 60 to 61 bp
ASB 22 bp N/A 41 to 50 bp 55 bp N/A
BNZ 21 bp N/A N/A 55 to 60 bp 63 bp
Westpac N/A N/A 41 bp 57 bp 64 bp

* bp = basis points per annum. 1bp = 0.01%

As each of these banks is rated AA- by S&P it is intuitive that their senior bonds trade within close proximity to each other. From the information we can generalise and build a credit term structure that can be plugged into valuation models to determine CVA. An estimated AA- credit curve could be:

  • 1 year = 25 bp
  • 2 year = 35 bp (linearly interpolated between 1 and 3 year points)
  • 3 year = 45 bp
  • 4 year = 55 bp
  • 5 year = 65 bp

The reality is that the CVA calculation is not very sensitive to these inputs so it is not necessary for a corporate with vanilla instruments to agonise over the credit assumptions. That said, the assumptions must be defensible and, more importantly from an IFRS 13 perspective, observable.

Furthermore, we would argue that if you are a corporate banked by more than one of the four banks in the table above then there is little added value in creating a curve for each counterparty. As we have shown, there is little difference in the market’s credit view between one AA- NZ bank and another.

The CVA module within the HedgebookPro app allows the user to create multiple credit curves and assign them appropriately to the relevant instruments. However, creating multiple curves will only be of added value if the counterparties are of materially different credit standing.

Credit spreads back to pre GFC levels

We have discussed CVA at length in our newsletter and blog as it is arguably the most significant change to the accounting standards, from a financial instruments valuation perspective, since hedge accounting was introduced. The standard relating to CVA, IFRS 13, was developed as a result of the Global Financial Crisis. It became apparent that credit risk had been mispriced for a long time in the lead up to the implosion of the credit markets in 2008/2009. IFRS 13 forces organisations to include an adjustment to financial instruments to represent a credit component – both for the reporting entity as well as the counterparty. The adjustment can be a reasonably immaterial number impacted by factors such as the remaining term to maturity and how far in- or out-of-the-money the derivatives are.

Some companies argue that the relative immateriality of the credit adjustment reduces the necessity of quantifying the credit component, to the extent that some companies are not bothering to do it. We understand that view as IFRS 13 seems like another regulatory requirement that adds little value to the business. However, the standard is explicit in its language that “fair value”, by definition, includes credit, therefore, the decision to do nothing about it cannot pass muster with the auditor.

A contributing factor to the “immateriality” argument is the prevailing benign credit conditions. The credit spread of banks can be observed through the Credit Default Swaps (“CDS”) market. A CDS is like an insurance policy – it compensates the holder of the policy if the underlying entity defaults on its debt obligations. As the chart below shows the credit quality of the big 4 Australian banks has been improving since the spike in 2011 and has continued to retrace back to levels that prevailed pre GFC. The resulting effect is to reduce the credit valuation impact on out-of-the-money derivatives (current exposure method). We would argue that although credit conditions have returned to benign levels it is only a matter of time before another credit shock occurs and companies will be better prepared to quantify such impacts if they already have a tried and tested methodology in place. Our Hedgebook clients benefit from the system’s low cost, easy to use CVA module.

Big 4 CDS 3 year

Lies, damned lies and valuations

With the passing of 30 June we have entered another busy period for year-end valuations. One of the most common questions we are asked at these important balance dates is “why is there a difference between the bank valuation and the Hedgebook valuation (or any other system’s valuation for that matter)?” The question is most commonly posed by auditors. It is probably not surprising that auditors want a perfect reconciliation between the client’s information and their own independent check but alas it will never come to pass. In this article we consider a selection of reasons that can lead to differences in valuations.

Although the modelling of interest rate swap valuations is relatively unchanged over many, many years there are subtle differences that will result in no two valuations being the same. From an interest rate swap perspective the most likely source of valuation differences is the construction of the zero curve. The zero curve is used to estimate the future cashflows of the floating leg of the swap, as well as the discount factors used to net present value the future values of the cashflows (both fixed and floating legs).

The underlying interest rate inputs into the zero curve construction (deposit rates, bank bills, LIBOR, futures, swap rates, etc.) may be slightly different between one system and another. Unlike official rate-sets such as BKBM, BBSW, LIBOR, EURIBOR, CDOR, etc. there is no one source for zero curves.

The mathematical technique to combine the various inputs into a zero curve can also differ (linear interpolation, cubic spline). These types of differences can lead to discrepancies between one valuation and another. Although on a percentage of notional basis the discrepancies are small, the monetary differences can become material if the notional of the swap is big enough i.e. a $500 difference on a $1 million interest rate swap becomes a $50,000 difference on a $100 million swap – a number that will draw attention but in reality is still immaterial.

The timing of the market snapshot for closing rates can be different, too. For example, Hedgebook uses New York 5pm as the end of day for valuation purposes, therefore, if the Hedgebook valuation is compared to a system that uses, say, Australia 5pm as its rate feed, then any movement in the intervening period will cause differences in valuations.

What we have talked about above is premised on the fact that two identical deals are being valued against each other. By far the most common reason for different valuations lies in human error around the inputting of a deal. From an interest rate swap perspective, the rate-set frequency (monthly, quarterly), accrual basis, business day conventions, margins on the floating leg are all possible areas which can result in valuation differences. The most common input error we come across relates to amortising interest rate swaps (changing face value and/or interest rate over the life of the swap). Very often there is no way for an auditor to realise that a swap is an amortising structure just by looking at the bank valuation. Often it is just the face value of the swap at the current valuation date that is shown on the bank valuation. It is the schedule at the end of the original bank confirmation that is required to accurately input and value such a structure.

Of course the true valuation of a derivative is determined by the price at which it can be sold/closed out which will be different to a valuation for accounting purposes. Valuations for accounting purposes are based on mid rates and, therefore, take no account of bid/offer spreads. Some of the changes we are seeing in the International Financial Reporting Standards are trying to provide greater consistency and more explicit definitions of fair value (IFRS 13). At least the “risk-free” component of an interest rate swap is a well-established methodology. The same cannot be said for the credit component (CVA), for which there is a myriad of approaches. It will be interesting to see how differences are reconciled and treated by auditors, as there is even less likelihood of two valuations being the same.

Calculating fx forward points

A common misunderstanding we often encounter relates to the calculation of foreign exchange forward points. Foreign exchange forward points are the time value adjustment made to the spot rate to reflect a future date. The forward foreign exchange market is very deep and liquid and is used by an array of participants for trading and hedging purposes. In the corporate world many importers and exporters hedge future foreign currency commitments or forecasts using forward exchange contracts (FECs).

The table below shows a selection of the forward points and outright rates for a number of currency pairs:

Forward points

Table 1: Forward points and outright rates

For example the NZD/USD 1-year forward points are currently -270, while the NZD/USD spot rate is 0.8325. Therefore, at today’s rates a forward rate of 0.8325 – 0.0270 = 0.8055 can be secured for a commitment or forecast in one year’s time. But how did the NZD/USD 1-year forward points come to be -270? The common misunderstanding is that they are traded like the spot rate i.e. based on currency traders’ views for the outlook of a currency’s fundamentals. This is incorrect. FX points are mathematically derived by the prevailing interest rate markets. Using our example of the NZD/USD 1-year forward points the -270 is a result of the 1-year US and NZ interest rate outlook. The NZD/USD is a good example because of the significant interest rate differentials between the two currencies. The aggressive monetary easing policies in the US have resulted in an extremely low interest rate environment. This contrasts with NZ which although has interest rates at historically low levels, they remain well above those of the US. The chart below shows the NZ interest rate yield curve versus the US and the corresponding fx forward points.

NZ and US int rates and fx points

Chart 1: NZ and US interest rates and the NZD/USD forward points

The interest rate market is telling us that the US 1-year swap rate is 0.25% while in NZ it is 3.45%. So how does this equate to -270 fx points?

Example

USD1,000,000 at a spot rate of 0.8325 = NZD1,201,201

If USD1,000,000 is invested for one year at a US interest rate of 0.25% per annum, at the end of one year USD1,000,000 is USD1,002,500.

If NZD1,201,201 is invested for one year at a NZ interest rate of 3.45% per annum, at the end of one year NZD1,201,201 is NZD1,242,643.

The equivalent exchange rate is NZD1,242,643 divided by USD1,002,500 = 0.8067.

0.8067 – 0.8325 = -0.0258 (or -258 fx points in the parlance of the fx markets).

The bid/ask spread of the fx and interest rate markets accounts for the 12 fx point balance. The example serves to provide a “back of the envelope” guide to calculating fx forward points and outright rates.

Even though the calculation of the forward points is mathematically derived from the interest rate market, interest rates themselves are the market’s expectation of the outlook for an economy’s fundamentals i.e. subjective. Therefore the fx forward points are derived from traders positioning on interest rate differentials.

Exporters from countries with higher interest rate environments such as New Zealand and Australia benefit from the negative forward points, while it is a cost to importers. An exporter wants a weak base currency so large negative forward points are an economic advantage. With an upward sloping interest rate yield curve (or more correctly positive interest rate differential) forward points will be more negative the longer the time horizon.

An importer wants a strong currency therefore negative forward points are detrimental to the hedged conversion rate. The impact of negative forward points is a reason that exporters often have longer term hedging horizons compared to importers because the impact of forward points are not penal.

Forward exchange contracts are therefore a flexible, and relatively easy to understand, hedging tool that is commonly used to bring certainty to those grappling with foreign exchange exposures and the volatility of the financial markets.

It’s risk management stupid

The bankrupted City of Detroit is locked in a legal battle over the purchase of interest rate swaps as are many other municipalities/local governments around the world. Detroit’s case is particularly high profile given the tragic demise of a once great city, and as with most bankruptcies not everyone appears to be treated equally or indeed fairly.

The numbers that relate to the interest rate swaps are enormous, which is no doubt why Detroit feels so aggrieved. These numbers are also, not surprisingly, losses, and indeed realised losses as the bankruptcy will result in the closing out of these swaps. But whose fault is it really, the banks for selling these swaps or the municipality for purchasing them?

Everyone likes to bash the banks and indeed they may not be blameless in this case. If the banks are withholding information or forcing the entity into purchasing the swaps as part of the underlying transaction then this doesn’t seem right. However, whether you are a large municipality in the US or a dairy farmer in New Zealand the onus is on the buyer of these products to understand the risks associated with them before they transact. It is difficult to believe that a finance team that is sophisticated enough to issue millions of dollars of bonds does not understand the mechanics of an interest rate swap.

Interest rate swaps are risk management tools. They can be used to give certainty of interest cashflows for entities that are perhaps highly geared and therefore cannot afford to pay any higher interest rates or can also be used as a proactive way of managing interest rates. Portfolio management dictates that a proportion of debt should be fixed either through fixed rate borrowing or interest rate swaps but the financial markets are not a one way bet, otherwise we would all be millionaires. There are risks attached to entering these transactions. As is often the case we hear of the cases where rates have gone against the swap owner but not so much when it has gone the other way.

Interest rate swaps are not toxic or necessarily dangerous. They should though be used by those who understand them. The various scenarios that can play out depending on movements in the financial markets should be modelled. Interest rate swaps also have the flexibility of being able to be closed out as part of the overall risk management strategy if necessary.

As with any purchase the buyer needs to know what they are buying. With swaps they need to form part of the overall risk management approach. We would all like the opportunity to try and renegotiate the whys and wherefores of entering into a financial instrument when the markets move against us. Swaps can be complicated but are also useful risk management tools that have a place in any borrowers or investors risk management strategy. Lack of understanding should not be a defense against decisions which in hindsight may not have been made.

Year of the Snake: Not the year for strong Chinese growth

As China gets ready to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy during the middle of the current decade, leaders have had to lead a tricky transition from a centrally-planned state to a free market. A major part of that task is to fill out the middle class that would support a consumption-based economy. But with base metal prices falling and the commodity currencies losing value in recent weeks, concerns over the Chinese growth picture have been stirred.

There’s one major caveat to Chinese data that is truly inapplicable to any other global economic force: you just don’t know if you can trust it. Chinese data seemingly comes out of a black box, where Chinese government readings of the economy tend to outpace private sector readings, or even eclipse foreign government estimates of economic activity.

One recent prominent example of this manipulation emerged in early-May when Chinese trade data showed an incongruent jump in exports despite declining orders to both Europe and the United States, China’s two largest markets. This discrepancy isn’t just our observation. According to researcher IHS Inc. via Sprott Group, “an “astounding” +92.9% jump in exports to Hong Kong, the most in 18 years, raises questions on data quality.”

Putting away our tinfoil hats for a moment, even if there’s no misinformation afoot, Chinese growth is slowing down. Presently, there are no indications from Chinese policymakers that they will try and stimulate their way out of this spell of moderation. Given recent rhetoric, it’s very unlikely that any such measures are taken at all, now or over the rest of 2013.

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The days of “ultra-high speed” growth were in the past, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in early-April. Similar sentiment was promoted by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who has said that China may have to accept annual growth rates below +7.0% in the coming years. Recent gauges of manufacturing activity suggest that 2Q’13 growth might edge lower towards +7.5% annualized. The HSBC services PMI index fell to 51.1 in April from 54.3 in March, suggesting that the slowdown is not just limited to the manufacturing sector. If there’s one indicator that may confirm these views, it is the Chinese Consumer Price Index.

The chart above illustrates the annualized Chinese inflation rate (yellow) against annualized Chinese GDP (white). The slowdown in Chinese growth accelerated in mid-2011 once price pressures started to fall, a sign that overall demand in the economy was weakening. Now, inflation has fallen by around four percent, tracking GDP’s diminished rate of +7.7% annualized from near +10.0% just two years earlier.

While it appears that the market and policymakers are going to push Chinese growth lower, the ripples these waves will create will be exceptionally important for the global economy. Already, signs of slowing Chinese growth have negatively impacted the Australian economy, where policymakers cut the main rate to a record low 2.75% in May.

The reasons behind the Reserve Bank of Australia’s rate cut are critically important, and are why we believe that, thanks to China, the Australian Dollar could suffer in mid-2013.