Detroit Swaps, Counterparty Risk and Valuation

When I worked on several swaps and over-the-counter options trading desks, there was always a lot to do in order in order to properly set up a program with an end-user. Sometimes this involved in-person training of a board or asset-liability management committee or otherwise authorized persons who had made an organizational decision to employ derivatives. Credit limits had to be vetted, decisions about collateral had to be made and master agreements were negotiated and signed. Throughout the process, everyone was mindful that big money was at stake and that getting the preliminaries finished on time, with diligence and care, was both crucial and important. The key was (and still is) to plan ahead for a worst case scenario wherein a contractual counterparty cannot or will not perform. Should that occur, the remaining party would likely seek to unwind or offset a given position rather than allow a bad situation to linger. A valuation of the over-the-counter derivative instrument in question, such as an interest rate swap, would be determined and mutually agreed upon. Contractual terms such as the rate of swap exchange, time remaining and the quality and quantity of collateral posted by either or both counterparties would typically be used to determine the amount of money owed by the non-performing entity. An agreement as to when "non-performance" commenced would be yet another factor. In a dispute situation such as a lawsuit, damages might be part of the calculation.

Sounds straightforward, right? Well, things are seldom simple, especially when one counterparty is in financial distress. When a counterparty owes money but cannot pay on a given date or has insufficient monies to settle a swap as part of a buyout, the remaining counterparty has to look to the underlying collateral, consider litigation and/or negotiate for some type of remuneration. Legal decisions can complicate things. Consider the situation with Detroit.

On January 16, 2014, Judge Steven W. Rhodes, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, opined that a $165 million payment to UBS and Bank of America to end certain interest rate swaps was too much money to outlay right now. Refer to "Detroit bankruptcy judge rejects $165M swaps deal with banks" (Crain's Detroit Business, January 16, 2014).

By way of background, these over-the-counter derivative contracts were related to the issuance of pension obligation bonds. The objective at that time was to protect the Detroit issuer (and taxpayers by extension) from higher funding costs if interest rates climbed. By having a swaps overlay, the bank counterparties were to pay Detroit if rates increased above a specified level. Conversely, lower rates would obligate Detroit to make periodic swap payments to the banks involved.

Reporters Nathan Borney and Alisa Priddle describe a 2009 effort to collateralize the swaps with casino-related revenue in "Detroit bankruptcy judge denies proposal to pay off disastrous debt deal" (Detroit Free Press, January 16, 2014). They add that this move was aimed at avoiding "an immediate payment of $300 million to $400 million on the swaps, potentially violating the Gaming Act" since interest rates had not risen. According to "Detroit continues talks with banks after canceling swaps truce" (Bloomberg, February 7, 2014), the swaps have a monthly price tag of about $4 million, "have cost taxpayers more than $200 million since 2009" and are being questioned by the city with respect to their "legitimacy."

Numerous questions come to mind and will no doubt be raised as the banks and city officials continue to talk or the attorneys take over, should litigation ensue. The list includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Who had the authority to commit Detroit to the swaps trades? Click to view an interesting visual put together by the Detroit Free Press and entitled "Were The $1.44-Billion Pension Deal And The Pledge Of Casino Tax Revenue Legal?" (September 14, 2013).
  • Were any of the recommending swaps agents subject to a conflict of interest, as has been suggested by The Detroit News?
  • What was the due diligence carried out by city officials before the swaps were put in place?
  • How were the collateral-related terms decided and by whom?
  • How were swap interest rate triggers determined?
  • Was there an independent party in place to regularly review the quality and quantity of posted collateral?
  • What role did the internal and external auditors play with respect to oversight of the reporting of the swaps and related bond financing?
  • Was there an appreciation that rising rates would mean a payment by the swap banks to the city and that this inflow could have been used to offset the higher cost of variable rate debt?
  • Who undertook the analysis of the effectiveness of the swaps as a hedge against rising rates and was the hedge deemed likely to be protective?

There are lessons to be learned aplenty about swaps, contractual protection, collateral valuation, oversight, authority and much more. No doubt there will be much more to say in future posts.

DOL Issues Advisory Opinion About Use of Swaps by ERISA Plans

ERISA plans have long relied on over-the-counter swaps to hedge or to enhance portfolio returns. Given the high level of attention being paid to de-risking solutions these days, the role of swaps is even more important since these derivative contracts are often used by insurance companies and banks to manage their own risks when an ERISA plan transfers assets and/or liabilities. Big dollars (and other currencies) are at stake. According to its 2012 semi-annual tally of global market size, the Bank for International Settlements ("BIS") estimates the interest rate swap market alone at $379 trillion. Click to access details about the size of the over-the-counter derivatives market as of June 2012. It is therefore noteworthy that regulatory feedback has now been provided with respect to the use of swaps by ERISA plans.

In its long awaited advisory opinion issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration ("EBSA"), ERISA plans can use swaps without fear of undue regulatory costs and diminished supply (due to brokers who do not want to trade if deemed a fiduciary).

In its rather lengthy February 7, 2013 communication with Steptoe & Johnson LLP attorney Melanie Franco Nussdorf (on behalf of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association), EBSA officials (Louis J. Campagna, Chief - Division of Fiduciary Interpretations, and Lyssa E. Hall, Director - Office of Exemption Determinations) made several important points about whether a swaps "clearing member" (a) has ERISA 3(21)(A)(i) fiduciary liability if a pension counterparty defaults and the clearing member liquidates its position (b) is a party in interest as described in section 3(14)(B) of ERISA with respect to the pension plan counterparty on the other side of a swaps trade and (c) will have created a prohibited transaction under section 406 of ERISA if it exercises its default rights. These include the following.

  • Margin held by a Futures Commission Merchant ("FCM") or a clearing organization as part of a swap trade with an ERISA plan will not be deemed a plan asset under Title 1 of ERISA. The plan's assets are the contractual rights to which both parties agree (in terms of financial exchanges) as well as any gains that the FCM or clearing member counterparty may realize as a result of its liquidation of a swap with an ERISA plan that has not performed.
  • An FCM or clearing organization should not be labeled a "party in interest" under ERISA as long as the swap agreement(s) with a plan is outside the realm of prohibited transaction rules.

There is much more to say on this topic and future posts will address issues relating to the use of derivatives by ERISA plans. In the meantime, links to this 2013 regulatory document and several worthwhile legal analyses are given below, as well as a link to my book on the topic of risk management. While it was published in late 2004 as a primer for fiduciaries, many of the issues relating to risk governance, risk metrics and risk responsibilities remain the same.

Negative Swap Spreads - Trouble On the Way?

If you missed "Will negative swap spreads be our coal mine canaries?" by Gillian Tett (Financial Times, March 30, 2010), it's a worthwhile read, especially given the pervasive use of triple A-rated sovereign bond yields as a proxy for the "risk-free" rate of return. A writer known as Bond Girl makes a similar observation in "10-year swap spread turns negative" (, March 23, 2010), adding that plausible explanations take the form of temporary and structural, respectively.

Consider the following:

  • Pension funds and other long-term investors are driving up demand to receive swap fixed payments as part of their asset-liability management strategies.
  • Some investors worry about the viability of governments to pay interest and debt on time.
  • Corporate debt issuers seek to hedge these liabilities.
  • Mortgage risk techniques are in flux, especially as the Federal Reserve Bank is no longer an active buyer of mortgage-backed securities. Read "Large-Scale Asset Purchases by the Federal Reserve: Did They Work?" (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, March 2010).

As if risk managers were not already challenged to deal with moving regulatory targets and market volatility, a negative swap curve adds to their concerns.

Editor's Note: On the topic of sovereign debt, a summary of Dr. Lucjan Orlowski's analysis of the Greek debt crisis and the likely impact on the U.S. dollar and euro will be posted shortly.

Private Equity and Derivatives - Double Whammy or Blissful Combo?

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, nearly 4 out of 10 surveyed pension plans say they allocate monies to private equity. Allowing that some managers have turned in acceptable returns, respondents also cited numerous "challenges and risks beyond those posed by traditional investments." Valuation and limited transparency are two issues cited in "Defined Benefit Pension Plans: Guidance Needed to Better Information Plans of the Challenges and Risks of Investing in Hedge Funds and Private Equity" (GAO-08-692, August 14, 2008).


To shed light on some of the intricacies associated with private equity investments, I authored a case study for the February 2009 issue of PEI Manager, a private equity and venture capital focused publication. The bottom line is that institutions that invest in private equity funds are directly impacted by their portfolio companies' use of derivatives.


"Swapping out" by Dr. Susan Mangiero, an Accredited Valuation Analyst and CFA charterholder, is reproduced below. Email Ms. Jennifer Harris, Associate Editor - PEI Manager, for permission to reprint the case study.


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Private Equity Holdings (“PEH”) is required by its charter to avoid companies that use derivative financial instruments to speculate. In reviewing numbers for FAS 157 reporting purposes, a PEH managing partner notices that one of its portfolio companies, ABC Incorporated (“ABC”), recently included a FAS 133 entry for a $20 million interest rate swap hedge. During a call to the company to query about how the swap is being used, the PEH managing partner is informed that its counterparty is Global Bank Limited (“Global”). Not only has Global just reported a $30 billion loss due to poor valuation of its structured product portfolio, it posted no collateral in favor of ABC while ABC was required to pledge $2 million in U.S. Treasury Bills in order to protect Global in the event that ABC could not make its contractual swap payments to Global. Not being too familiar with derivative instrument pricing and default risk analysis, PEH hires an expert to investigate whether the swaps reflect a hedge versus a market bet and to further assess how PEH should adjust the valuation of its equity stake in ABC. What does the expert need to look at and how should she arrive at an appropriate conclusion?




This fact situation, ripped from the headlines, raises several important valuation questions, including, but not limited to the following:


  • Notwithstanding FAS 133 numbers, is the company exposed to changes in interest rates that could adversely impact cash flow, liquidity and net income?
  • Was the swap correctly valued?
  • How might ABC be impacted by Global’s deteriorating health?
  • What adjustments, if any, should PEH make to its initial valuation of ABC equity?

There are several critical issues here, all of which could seriously hamper the fortunes of both ABC shareholders and PEH investors. An inaccurate valuation of the swap leads to a flawed accounting representation for ABC and may lull treasury staff into thinking that the hedge offers full protection against unexpected moves in interest rates. PEH may report a bad FAS 157 number which in turn could lead to flawed asset allocation decisions made by institutional limited partners or the overpayment of performance fees to PEH. A poorly constructed hedge (in economic versus accounting terms) that exposes ABC to negative market conditions could force PEH to violate its prohibition against speculative trades being executed by portfolio companies. If Global does not meet its swap obligations and/or files for bankruptcy protection, ABC may not be able to recover its collateral quickly or could lose it altogether, depending on its standing vis-à-vis other creditors.


Swap pricing models can differ depending on the complexity of the transaction. However, for standard fixed to LIBOR swaps, the secondary market is large ($111 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements). Active trading makes it easy to readily obtain prices for various maturity interest rate swaps with quotes reflecting the discounting of future projected fixed and floating swap payment amounts. In contrast, the assessment of credit worthiness varies, sometimes considerably, across banks. Unfortunately for ABC, even if they posted more collateral than should have been required, the fact remains that they have no immediate recourse in the event that Global’s distress prevents the bank from paying what it owes to ABC. If Global defaults, ABC will then have to decide on a course of action that could include any or all of the following:


  • Enter into a second interest rate swap to replace Global at a now higher fixed rate
  • Attempt to sell the initial swap in the open market and consider another way to hedge against rising interest rates though few will be willing to accept the Global risk
  • Take legal action to reclaim its collateral
  • Write down the value of the swap on its books

There is no ideal situation. The expert will necessarily have to ask ABC what they plan to do in the event of swap non-performance and how it is expected to impact its cash flow, cost of money (which in turn affects capital budget decisions), balance sheet, dividend payments and interest coverage. Once that scenario analysis is conducted, both the expert and PEH will be able to quantify how much of an adjustment downward they will need to make for both accounting and performance reporting purposes.