What is an 'Asset Swap'

An asset swap is similar in structure to a plain vanilla swap with the key difference being the underlying of the swap contract. Rather than regular fixed and floating loan interest rates being swapped, fixed and floating assets are being exchanged.

All swaps are derivative contracts through which two parties exchange financial instruments. These instruments can be almost anything, but most swaps involve cash flows based on a notional principal amount agreed upon by both parties. As the name suggests, asset swaps involve an actual asset exchange instead of just cash flows.

Swaps do not trade on exchanges, and retail investors do not generally engage in swaps. Rather, swaps are over-the-counter contracts between businesses or financial institutions.

BREAKING DOWN 'Asset Swap'

Asset swaps can be used to transform the cash flow characteristics of the underlying asset in order to hedge currency, credit and/or interest rate risks, or creating a synthetic investment with more suitable cash flow characteristics. Typically, an asset swap involves transactions in which the investor acquires a bond position and then enters into an interest rate swap with the bank that sold him/her the bond. The investor pays fixed and receives floating. This transforms the fixed coupon of the bond into a LIBOR-based floating coupon.

It is widely used by banks to convert their long-term fixed rate assets to a floating rate in order to match their short-term liabilities (depositor accounts).

Another use is to insure against loss due to credit risk, such as default or bankruptcy, of the bond's issuer. Here, the swap buyer is also buying protection.

How an Asset Swap Works

Whether the swap is to hedge interest rate risk or default risk, there are two separate trades that occur.

First, the swap buyer purchases a bond from the swap seller in return for a full price of par plus accrued interest (called the dirty price).

Next, the two parties create a contract where the buyer agrees to pay fixed coupons to the swap seller equal to the fixed rate coupons received from the bond. In return, the swap buyer receives variable rate payments of LIBOR plus (or minus) an agreed upon fixed spread. The maturity of this swap is the same as the maturity of the asset.

The mechanics are the same for the swap buyer wishing to hedge default or some other event risk. Here, the swap buyer is essentially buying protection and the swap seller is also selling that protection.

As before, the swap seller (protection seller) will agree to pay the swap buyer (protection buyer) LIBOR plus (or minus) a spread in return for the cash flows of the risky bond (the bond itself does not change hands). In the event of default, the swap buyer will continue to receive LIBOR plus (or minus) the spread from the swap seller. In this way, the swap buyer has transformed its original risk profile by changing both its interest rate and credit risk exposure.

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