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Author:   |   Latest post: Mon, 24 Jul 2017, 12:42 AM

 

Interest Rate Hedging Smoke Screen

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After US Federal Reserve increased interest rates in Dec, Mar and Jun, and after Yellen's congressional speech last Wed, interest rates are confirmed on the way up. This will impact companies with large debts, especially REITs, as higher interest expense would mean lower distribution for shareholders. The usual response that companies give to questions of rising interest rates is that they have hedged the majority of their loans by swapping floating loan rates for fixed loan rates. However, are such measures adequate to mitigate the impact of rising interest rates?

If you ask any person who took up a fixed-rate mortgage loan to finance his housing purchase, he will tell you that even though it is a fixed-rate loan, the interest rate is only fixed for 2-3 years. After that, the interest rate will revert to a floating rate. Although he can refinance to a new fixed-rate loan after 2-3 years, the new fixed interest rate will be based on the prevailing interest rates then, not the interest rates now. Currently, a 2-year fixed-rate loan is available at 1.6%. But if interest rates were to rise to say, 2.6%, 2 years later, the new fixed-rate loan after refinancing would be at 2.6%. So, fixing the loan interest rate does not eliminate the effect of rising interest rates. It only postpones the impact to 2-3 years later when the loan or interest rate swap expires.

Moreover, unlike mortgage loans in which you pay down the loan principal over time, company loans are usually bullet loans, in which repayment of the loan principal is only required when the loan matures. Furthermore, these bullet loans are usually refinanced and rolled over to a new bullet loan. In other words, the loan principal is not paid down over time. When you fix the interest rate and pay down the loan over the period of the fixed interest rate, you reduce the increase in interest expense when the rate is reset after refinancing. But when companies do not pay down the loan when the interest rate is fixed, the increase in interest expense 2-3 years down the road is the same as if the interest rate fix does not exist! The only benefit is that companies save some interest expense during the 2-3 years when interest rate is fixed. But it does not eliminate the impact of rising interest rates altogether.

So, when companies say they hedge interest rates, please be aware that it only postpones the impact to 2-3 years down the road.


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