An interest rate swap is a type of a derivative contract through which two counterparties agree to exchange one stream of future interest payments for another, based on a specified principal amount. In most cases, interest rate swaps include the exchange of a fixed interest rate for a floating rate.
Similar to other types of swaps, interest rate swaps are not traded on public exchanges – only over-the-counter (OTC).
Basically, interest rate swaps occur when two parties – one of which is receiving fixed rate interest payments and the other of which is receiving floating rate payments – mutually agree that they would prefer the other party’s loan arrangement over their own. The party being paid based on a floating rate decides that they would prefer to have a guaranteed fixed rate, while the party that is receiving fixed rate payments believes that interest rates may rise, and to take advantage of that situation if it occurs – to earn higher interest payments – they would prefer to have a floating rate, one that will rise if and when there is a general uptrend in interest rates.
In an interest rate swap, the only things that actually get swapped are the interest payments. An interest rate swap, as previously noted, is a derivative contract. The parties do not take ownership of the other party’s debt. Instead, they merely make a contract to pay each other the difference in loan payments as specified in the contract. They do not exchange debt assets, nor pay the full amount of interest due on each interest payment date – only the difference due as a result of the swap contract.
A good interest rate swap contract clearly states the terms of the agreement, including the respective interest rates each party is to be paid by the other party, and the payment schedule (e.g., monthly, quarterly, or annually). In addition, the contract states both the start date and maturity date of the swap agreement, and that both parties are bound by the terms of the agreement until the maturity date.
Note that while both parties to an interest rate swap get what they want – one party gets the risk protection of a fixed rate, while the other gets the exposure to potential profit from a floating rate – ultimately, one party will reap a financial reward while the other sustains a financial loss. If interest rates rise during the term of the swap agreement, then the party receiving the floating rate will profit and the party receiving the fixed rate will incur a loss. Conversely, if interest rates decline, then the party getting paid the guaranteed fixed rate return will benefit, while the party receiving payments based on a floating rate will see the amount of the interest payments it receives go down.