A swap, in finance, is an agreement between two counterparties to exchange financial instruments or cashflows or payments for a certain time. The instruments can be almost anything but most swaps involve cash based on a notional principal amount.
The general swap can also be seen as a series of forward contracts through which two parties exchange financial instruments, resulting in a common series of exchange dates and two streams of instruments, the legs of the swap. The legs can be almost anything but usually one leg involves cash flows based on a notional principal amount that both parties agree to. This principal usually does not change hands during or at the end of the swap; this is contrary to a future, a forward or an option.
In practice one leg is generally fixed while the other is variable, that is determined by an uncertain variable such as a benchmark interest rate, a foreign exchange rate, an index price, or a commodity price.
Swaps are primarily over-the-counter contracts between companies or financial institutions. Retail investors do not generally engage in swaps.
A Major Swap Participant (MSP, or sometimes Swap Bank) is a generic term to describe a financial institution that facilitates swaps between counterparties. It maintains a substantial position in swaps for any of the major swap categories. A swap bank can be an international commercial bank, an investment bank, a merchant bank, or an independent operator. A swap bank serves as either a swap broker or swap dealer. As a broker, the swap bank matches counterparties but does not assume any risk of the swap. The swap broker receives a commission for this service. Today, most swap banks serve as dealers or market makers. As a market maker, a swap bank is willing to accept either side of a currency swap, and then later on-sell it, or match it with a counterparty. In this capacity, the swap bank assumes a position in the swap and therefore assumes some risks. The dealer capacity is obviously more risky, and the swap bank would receive a portion of the cash flows passed through it to compensate it for bearing this risk.
Interest rate swaps
The most common type of swap is an interest rate swap. Some companies may have comparative advantage in fixed rate markets, while other companies have a comparative advantage in floating rate markets. When companies want to borrow, they look for cheap borrowing, i.e. from the market where they have comparative advantage. However, this may lead to a company borrowing fixed when it wants floating or borrowing floating when it wants fixed. This is where a swap comes in. A swap has the effect of transforming a fixed rate loan into a floating rate loan or vice versa.
For example, party B makes periodic interest payments to party A based on a variable interest rate of LIBOR +70 basis points. Party A in return makes periodic interest payments based on a fixed rate of 8.65%. The payments are calculated over the notional amount. The first rate is called variable because it is reset at the beginning of each interest calculation period to the then current reference rate, such as LIBOR. In reality, the actual rate received by A and B is slightly lower due to a bank taking a spread.
An inflation-linked swap involves exchanging a fixed rate on a principal for an inflation index expressed in monetary terms. The primary objective is to hedge against inflation and interest-rate risk.
A currency swap involves exchanging principal and fixed rate interest payments on a loan in one currency for principal and fixed rate interest payments on an equal loan in another currency. Just like interest rate swaps, the currency swaps are also motivated by comparative advantage. Currency swaps entail swapping both principal and interest between the parties, with the cashflows in one direction being in a different currency than those in the opposite direction. It is also a very crucial uniform pattern in individuals and customers.
A basis swap involves exchanging floating interest rates based on different money markets. The principal is not exchanged. The swap effectively limits the interest-rate risk as a result of having differing lending and borrowing rates.
A commodity swap is an agreement whereby a floating (or market or spot) price is exchanged for a fixed price over a specified period. The vast majority of commodity swaps involve crude oil.
Credit default swap
An agreement whereby the payer periodically pays premiums, sometimes also or only a one-off or initial premium, to the protection seller on a notional principal for a period of time so long as a specified credit event has not occurred. The credit event can refer to a single asset or a basket of assets, usually debt obligations. In the event of default, the payer receives compensation, for example the principal, possibly plus all fixed rate payments until the end of the swap agreement, or any other way that suits the protection buyer or both counterparties. The primary objective of a CDS is to transfer one party’s credit exposure to another party.
Subordinated risk swaps
A subordinated risk swap (SRS), or equity risk swap, is a contract in which the buyer (or equity holder) pays a premium to the seller (or silent holder) for the option to transfer certain risks. These can include any form of equity, management or legal risk of the underlying (for example a company). Through execution the equity holder can (for example) transfer shares, management responsibilities or else. Thus, general and special entrepreneurial risks can be managed, assigned or prematurely hedged. Those instruments are traded over-the-counter (OTC) and there are only a few specialized investors worldwide.
An agreement to exchange future cash flows between two parties where one leg is an equity-based cash flow such as the performance of a stock asset, a basket of stocks or a stock index. The other leg is typically a fixed-income cash flow such as a benchmark interest rate.
There are myriad different variations on the vanilla swap structure, which are limited only by the imagination of financial engineers and the desire of corporate treasurers and fund managers for exotic structures.
- A total return swap is a swap in which party A pays the total return of an asset, and party B makes periodic interest payments. The total return is the capital gain or loss, plus any interest or dividend payments. Note that if the total return is negative, then party A receives this amount from party B. The parties have exposure to the return of the underlying stock or index, without having to hold the underlying assets. The profit or loss of party B is the same for him as actually owning the underlying asset.
- An option on a swap is called a swaption. These provide one party with the right but not the obligation at a future time to enter into a swap
- A variance swap is an over-the-counter instrument that allows investors to trade future realized (or historical) volatility against current implied volatility.
- A constant maturity swap (CMS) is a swap that allows the purchaser to fix the duration of received flows on a swap.
- An amortizing swap is usually an interest rate swap in which the notional principal for the interest payments declines during the life of the swap, perhaps at a rate tied to the prepayment of a mortgage or to an interest rate benchmark such as the LIBOR. It is suitable to those customers of banks who want to manage the interest rate risk involved in predicted funding requirement, or investment programs.
- A zero coupon swap is of use to those entities which have their liabilities denominated in floating rates but at the same time would like to conserve cash for operational purposes.
- A deferred rate swap is particularly attractive to those users of funds that need funds immediately but do not consider the current rates of interest very attractive and feel that the rates may fall in future.
- An accreting swap is used by banks which have agreed to lend increasing sums over time to its customers so that they may fund projects.
- A forward swap is an agreement created through the synthesis of two swaps differing in duration for the purpose of fulfilling the specific time-frame needs of an investor. Also referred to as a forward start swap, delayed start swap, and a deferred start swap.
- A quanto swap is a cash-settled, cross-currency interest rate swap in which one counterparty pays a foreign interest rate to the other, but the notional amount is in domestic currency. The second party may be paying a fixed or floating rate. For example, a swap in which the notional amount is denominated in Canadian dollars, but where the floating rate is set as USD LIBOR, would be considered a quanto swap. Quanto swaps are known as differential or rate-differential or diff swaps.
- A range accrual swap (or range accrual note) is an agreement to pay a fixed or floating rate while receiving cash flows from a fixed or floating rate which are accrued only on those days where the second rate falls within a preagreed range. The received payments are maximized when the second rate stays entirely within the range for the duration of the swap.
- A three-zone digital swap is a generalization of the range accrual swap, the payer of a fixed rate receives a floating rate if that rate stays within a certain preagreed range, or a fixed rate if the floating rate goes above the range, or a different fixed rate if the floating rate falls below the range.
Applications of Swaps
Access to new markets
Companies can use swaps as a tool for accessing previously unavailable markets. For example, a US company can opt to enter into a currency swap with a British company to access the more attractive dollar-to-pound exchange rate, because the UK-based firm can borrow domestically at a lower rate.
One of the primary functions of swaps is the hedging of risks. For example, interest rate swaps can hedge against interest rate fluctuations, and currency swaps are used to hedge against currency exchange rate fluctuations.