Beware Blaming Bad Bond Bets!

The debate about speculation vs. investment has gone on at least since the Sumerians traded wine forwards five or six millennia ago. More recently − five or six decades ago −  one of our most famous value investors put it this way:

ben graham


“The speculator’s primary interest lies in anticipating and profiting from market fluctuations. The investor’s primary interest lies in acquiring and holding suitable securities at suitable prices.”

– Benjamin Graham
The Intelligent Investor

Graham’s words of wisdom come to mind after reading this piece from CNBC.com. It keys off a “study” by the Services Employees International Union about derivatives usage by municipalities.

The central premise: if a municipality (and by extension, a corporation, asset manager, pension fund, sovereign or other entity) decided to lock in rates a few years ago with an interest rate swap, it made a “bad bond bet.” That’s because rates stayed low, meaning there was no need to hedge and so the premiums spent on the hedge could have been spent elsewhere.

The logic (?) of this position is: it’s better to stay exposed to market fluctuations than to manage the risk of those fluctuations.

But isn’t that betting (or speculating)?

Well, yes, actually, it is.

But wait…what about the fact that terminating that hedge can mean big payments from a hedger to its counterparty? Isn’t that another sign that it’s just a bad bet?

Well, no, actually, it is not. Here’s why:

Assume a hedger issues floating rate debt and then does a swap to lock in a fixed rate (by paying fixed and receiving floating).

Rates then go lower, which means the cost of the floating rate debt declines. The hedger pays less in interest income on the debt.

At the same time, the hedger continues to make the same fixed rate payments on the swap (and continues to receive floating rate payments from its counterparty). The market value of the swap has changed, because the hedger’s fixed rate payments are more valuable now that rates have gone down.

So if the hedger wants to terminate the swap, its counterparty wants a larger termination payment to compensate for the loss of those fixed rate payments.

Keep in mind that the hedger is under no obligation to terminate the swap. Its decision to do so is voluntary.

So why would a hedger voluntarily pay a large termination fee to exit a swap?

The most likely reason: It has determined that it could save money by issuing new debt — and by calling in its existing debt and terminating its existing swaps.

So, to summarize: a hedge enables a hedger to optimize its financings while protecting against changes in rates. The effectiveness of the hedge is a function not just of its cost but also of the cost of the hedger’s debt. Termination payments reflect changes in value of the swap hedge and are made voluntarily when the hedger has determined that there’s financial value in calling old debt, terminating swaps related to that debt and issuing new bonds.