Month in Cash: Libor's long goodbye

08-01-2017

If any field operates better under a deadline, it’s the financial industry. That may be the reasoning behind the Financial Conduct Authority’s announcement late in July of a time frame for phasing out the London interbank offered rate (Libor). The catch is that the date is so far out (year-end 2021) to be much of an immediate incentive. It points to that other near-given when it comes to the financial sphere: change takes a long time to implement. For reference, remind yourself of money market reform!

We have known Libor’s time was numbered for some time now. The long time frame until its termination reflects the ongoing debate about what the replacement should be. We expect the solution will come from the same regulator, but others have been pushing for a rate based off Treasury repo and other options. It is now time to cease arguing about pluses and minuses of various replacements and put forth effort to decide on one and work to fine-tune it. As far as cash managers are concerned, the issue mostly concerns floating-rate securities, which use Libor for price. But it is not just us. From a broader market perspective all sorts of derivatives—swaps, puts, calls—hinge on the rate, or on the spread between Libors of differing maturities.

We think the ultimate solution for a replacement will vary according to what will work best for each portion of the market and the types of securities used. The replacements don’t all have to be the same. We would caution against using Treasuries as a benchmark, however, because they are flight-to-quality securities often moving due to global developments. You want to use a measure that is mostly dependent on market conditions. Bottom line for us is that our cash products are not immediately affected by the announcement and any adjustment down the line won’t be disruptive.

Libor wasn’t the only rate making news last month. U.S. policymakers have been telegraphing the imminent wind down of its massive balance sheet, and we think that will start to take place in September, likely pushing the final fed funds hike of 2017 until December. Some market participants at this point actually see 2018 as more probable. It’s all a reflection of an economy that has definitely not caught on fire from an economic growth standpoint, yet is performing OK. Also, there appears to be a re-evaluation of inflation goals. Should 2% be the actual neutral rate that the Fed needs to hit, and does it need to get to that level in the next year? Or should that target be lower, with two years to hit it? At the core, changes in the yield curve reflect a market trying to size up how to process expectations from both an inflationary and an economic standpoint.

In any case our investing approach—which we call a “barbell” because it focuses on the shorter and longer ends of the cash-yield curve—generally skips over the 6-month space, usually purchasing securities 3-months-and-under and then from 9-12 months. The weighted average maturities (WAM) of our cash products in July was 30-40 days for government and municipal money funds, with prime increasing to 40-50 days from 35-45. Returning to Libor, it rose over July, with 1-month increasing from 1.06% to 1.23%, 3-month from 1.21% to 1.31% and 6-month from 1.42% to 1.46%.