The October U.S. employment report released last week depicted a healthy job market, indicating that the Federal Reserve may finally start to raise short-term interest rates. For treasurers, a Fed move would signal a whole new ball game in which rising rates could affect their borrowing, short-term investing, and currency exposures.
“Most companies we see are not prepared for a rising-rate environment,” said Anthony Carfang, a partner and director at consultancy Treasury Strategies.
The change in Fed policy will come as a shock after eight years of low interest rates, Carfang said. “How many people inside of a corporate treasurer’s office even remember what it was like when interest rates were 5% or 6% or 7%, and what kind of things you had to do to run your cash, and how important your cash forecasting was, and what you used on your treasury workstation to get that right?”
On the investment side, treasurers should reassess the state of their technology and the accuracy of their cash-flow forecasting “so they know how to time their investments,” Carfang said. “If they make a one-year investment and they need the cash—let’s say they buy a one-year CD and they need the cash in 120 days—they pay a breakage fee. Or if they buy a one-year Treasury and have to redeem it six months from now, there’s a small capital loss.”
On the borrowing side, treasury departments should look at their company’s capital structure and try to lock in favorable rates for as long as possible, he said. “Do you have the right amount of long-term bonds versus short-term bonds or bank debt? You want to be sure that’s all lined up to take advantage of the low rates available in the market today, together with your capital structure needs going forward.” Many companies have already dealt with this, Carfang said.
Companies also need to keep in mind the way higher U.S. rates can spill over into the foreign exchange markets, something that’s already evident.
“If you go back to earnings calls over the last two quarters, the number of companies blaming the foreign exchange impact as the reason they missed their forecast or consensus estimates was astounding,” said Ryan Gaylor, director of client sales and midmarket at Reval, a provider of treasury and risk management solutions. “That’s directly driven by the interest-rate climate. When everyone was expecting the U.S. to raise interest rates, the dollar strengthened against most currencies. The dollar is near a five-year high against most major currencies over the last six months—that’s because of the expectation on the interest-rate environment.”
Treasurers need to consider the possible effect of FX volatility on their companies, Carfang said, but he noted that whether there is an impact depends on where the company does business and whether they are an importer or exporter.
The approach of Federal Reserve rate hikes has led to some uneasiness about floating-rate debt. A September report from Goldman Sachs estimated that floating-rate debt makes up 8% of the outstanding debt of S&P 500 companies and predicted that companies with high levels of floating-rate debt will see their stock underperform when the Fed starts to raise rates.
On average, floating-rate debt has made up 8% of total U.S. corporate bond issuance over the past six years, according to Diane Vazza, head of global fixed income research at Standard & Poor’s. She expects that mix to change, but noted in an email that “an initial interest rate hike in the range of 25 [basis points] is unlikely to drive a meaningful shift in the use of floating rate securities.”
Carfang said floating-rate issuance will remain an option for treasurers. Nonfinancial companies prefer fixed-rate debt, he said, but will use floating-rate debt when it matches their funding needs. The decision also goes back to the company’s outlook on how much rates will rise in coming years.
Hedging Against a Rate Hike
Gaylor said he’s seeing more companies considering the use of interest-rate hedges as they anticipate rising rates.
Over the last few years, many companies that had issued debt at a high interest rate in the past put on fixed-to-floating interest rate swaps, basically swapping the higher fixed rate on the debt for a lower floating rate.
With the prospect of an increase in the Fed’s target rate, Gaylor said, some banks are encouraging companies to put on long-term interest rate hedges against outstanding debt with maturities of 20 or 30 years. Other companies are looking at hedges that would lock in a low interest rate against future debt issuance, he said.
But as companies consider how to respond to the prospect of rising rates, they’re also questioning how high rates are likely to go and if they should anticipate a new normal. Since the ‘70s, each decade has seen a continued downward reset of long-term interest rates in the U.S., Gaylor said. “This leaves many questioning if we will see another 1- to 2-point downward shift in long-term rates.”
In recent years, some big U.S. corporations have taken advantage of low rates in Europe by issuing debt there. Depending on whether the companies planned to use the funds overseas or bring them back to the U.S., some have turned to cross-currency swaps to hedge that exposure, Gaylor said.
The change in the interest-rate environment also has focused companies’ attention on ways to maximize their internal liquidity, using structures like in-house banks, Gaylor said.
“If you optimize your internal liquidity, you can reduce the need to draw on revolvers and credit facilities, and the overall reliance on external liquidity in general,” he said. “If Entity A in Germany is sitting on a pile of cash while Entity C in the U.S. or Mexico needs to borrow cash, you are better off sourcing that deicit internally if possible.”