Understanding Central Bank Liquidity Swaps

This is part 7 of a 10 part series on currency swaps and interest rate swaps and their role in the global economy. In part 7, we illustrated how companies use swaps in the global market place, but on a company-to-company basis. In part 8, we’ll explain the purpose of swaps on the central bank level and when they’re used.

As established earlier in this series, a currency swap is an agreement to exchange principal interest and fixed interest in one currency (i.e. the U.S. Dollar) for principal interest and fixed interest in another currency (i.e. the Euro). Like interest rate swaps, whose lives can range from 2-years to beyond 10-years, currency swaps are a long-term hedging technique against interest rate risk, but unlike interest rate swaps, currency swaps also manage risk borne from exchange rate fluctuations.

Banks and companies aren’t the only parties using currency swaps. A special type of currency swap, a central bank liquidity swap, is utilized by central banks (hence the name) to provide their domestic country’s currency (i.e. the Federal Reserve using the U.S. Dollar) to another country’s central bank (i.e. the Bank of Japan).

Central bank liquidity swaps are a new instrument, first deployed in December 2007 in agreements with the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank as U.S. Dollar funding markets ‘dried up’ overseas. The Federal Reserve created the currency swap lines to assist foreign central banks with the ability to provide U.S. Dollar funding to financial institutions during times of market stress. For example, if the Federal Reserve were to open up liquidity swaps with the Bank of Japan, the Bank of Japan could provide U.S. Dollar funding to Japanese banks (just as the Bank of England would provide liquidity to British banks, etc).

As the world’s most important central bank (next to the Bank of International Settlements, considered the central bank for central banks) in one of the world’s most globalized financial markets, the Federal Reserve has a responsibility of keeping safe financial institutions under its jurisdiction. Thus, when factors abroad (such as the European sovereign debt crisis) create funding stresses for U.S. financial institutions, the Federal Reserve, since 2007, has opened up temporary swap lines.

Generally speaking, currency liquidity swaps involve two transactions. First, like currency swaps between banks and companies (as illustrated in part 7), when a foreign central bank needs to access U.S. Dollar funding, the foreign central bank sells a specified amount of its currency to the Federal Reserve in exchange for U.S. Dollars at the current spot exchange rate.

In the second transaction, the Federal Reserve and the foreign central bank enter into agreement that says the foreign central bank will buy back its currency at a specified date at the same exchange rate for which it exchanged them for U.S. Dollars. Additionally, the foreign central bank pays the Federal Reserve interest on its holdings.

Unlike regular currency swaps, central bank liquidity swaps are rare and only occur during times of market stress. The first such occurrence, as noted earlier, was in December 2007, as funding markets started to dry up as the U.S. economy entered a recession as the housing market crashed.

More recently, on November 30, 2011, the Federal Reserve announced liquidity swaps with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank, after the European sovereign debt crisis roiled markets throughout the fall. These swaps are set to expire in February 2013.

What necessitated the Federal Reserve’s most recent round of central bank liquidity swaps? The ongoing crisis in Greece, which in fact was onset by a series of ill-advised interest rate swaps with U.S. bank Goldman Sachs.

In part 8 of 10 of this series, we’ll discuss the role of interest rate swaps in more recent times: the Euro-zone crisis (as well as answer the question in part 5 about Goldman Sach’s role with Greece’s demise).

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