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Zero Basis Risk Swap (ZEBRA): Definition, Applications, and Examples

Last updated 05/25/2024 by

Silas Bamigbola

Edited by

Fact checked by

Summary:
Zero basis risk swap (ZEBRA) is a financial agreement between a municipality and a financial intermediary, ensuring stable cash flows by exchanging fixed and floating interest rates. ZEBRAs mitigate basis risk, providing municipalities with predictable debt costs regardless of interest rate fluctuations.

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Understanding zero basis risk swap (ZEBRA)

A zero basis risk swap (ZEBRA) is a specialized type of interest rate swap typically utilized by municipalities to manage their debt obligations. In this financial arrangement, the municipality enters into an agreement with a financial intermediary, usually a bank or investment firm. The purpose of a ZEBRA is to exchange fixed interest rate payments for floating rate payments, thereby mitigating the risk associated with fluctuations in interest rates.

How ZEBRAs work

Under a ZEBRA agreement, the municipality commits to paying a fixed rate of interest on a predetermined principal amount to the financial intermediary. In return, the municipality receives a floating rate of interest from the intermediary. Importantly, the floating rate received by the municipality mirrors the floating rate on its existing debt obligations, ensuring a perfect hedge against interest rate movements.
The term “zero basis risk” refers to the absence of basis risk in this swap arrangement. Basis risk arises when the returns from offsetting investments in a hedging strategy do not move perfectly in opposite directions. With a ZEBRA, the municipality eliminates this risk since the floating rate it receives perfectly matches the floating rate on its debt.

Benefits of ZEBRAs for municipalities

Municipalities opt for ZEBRAs to achieve several key benefits:
  • Stable cash flows: By exchanging fixed interest rate payments for floating rate payments, municipalities can stabilize their cash flows, making it easier to budget for debt servicing.
  • Risk management: ZEBRAs serve as an effective tool for managing interest rate risk, allowing municipalities to hedge against adverse movements in interest rates.
  • Cost efficiency: Despite potential downsides, such as the risk of paying a higher fixed rate if interest rates decline, ZEBRAs can still be cost-effective for municipalities seeking to stabilize their debt costs.

Example scenario

Consider a hypothetical scenario where a municipality has issued $10 million in floating-rate debt at a rate of the prime rate plus 1%, with the prime rate currently at 2%. The municipality enters into a ZEBRA agreement with a financial institution, agreeing to pay a fixed rate of 3.1%. In return, the municipality receives floating interest rate payments equivalent to the prime rate plus 1% from the financial institution.
Regardless of future interest rate movements, the floating rate received by the municipality will always match the rate it needs to pay on its debt, ensuring a zero basis risk swap.
Weigh the risks and benefits
Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider:
Pros
  • Stabilizes cash flows for municipalities
  • Effective tool for managing interest rate risk
  • Cost-efficient risk management strategy
Cons
  • Potential for higher fixed-rate payments if interest rates decline
  • Complexity of derivative instruments
  • Counterparty risk with financial intermediaries

Benefits of zero basis risk swaps

Zero basis risk swaps (ZEBRAs) offer several advantages to municipalities:
  • Risk mitigation: By entering into ZEBRA agreements, municipalities can effectively hedge against interest rate risk, protecting themselves from adverse movements in interest rates.
  • Cost savings: ZEBRAs can result in cost savings for municipalities over the long term, particularly if interest rates remain stable or increase, as fixed-rate payments may be lower than prevailing market rates.
  • Flexibility: ZEBRAs provide municipalities with flexibility in managing their debt portfolios, allowing them to tailor their interest rate exposure to their specific financial needs and objectives.

Real-world applications of zero basis risk swaps

Let’s explore some real-world examples of how municipalities utilize ZEBRAs to manage their debt obligations:

City A’s debt management strategy

City A issues a series of municipal bonds to finance infrastructure projects, resulting in a significant portion of its debt portfolio being subject to variable interest rates. To mitigate the risk of rising interest rates impacting its debt servicing costs, City A enters into ZEBRA agreements with financial institutions. These agreements provide City A with certainty in its interest rate payments, allowing it to budget effectively and avoid potential budgetary constraints due to interest rate fluctuations.

County B’s budget stability initiative

County B faces challenges in maintaining budget stability due to fluctuations in interest rates and uncertainty in its debt servicing costs. In response, County B implements a budget stability initiative that includes entering into ZEBRA agreements to lock in favorable interest rates. By stabilizing its debt costs through ZEBRAs, County B can allocate resources more efficiently, fund essential services, and enhance its overall financial resilience.

Conclusion

Zero basis risk swaps (ZEBRAs) play a crucial role in the financial management strategies of municipalities, offering a means to mitigate interest rate risk and stabilize debt servicing costs. Despite their complexity and associated risks, ZEBRAs provide municipalities with valuable tools to achieve budget stability, manage risk, and enhance financial resilience in an evolving economic environment.

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between a ZEBRA and a traditional interest rate swap?

In a traditional interest rate swap, the floating rate received by one party may not perfectly match the floating rate on its existing debt, leading to basis risk. In contrast, a ZEBRA ensures a perfect hedge against interest rate movements, as the floating rate received matches the rate on the municipality’s debt.

Are ZEBRAs suitable for all municipalities?

ZEBRAs may not be suitable for all municipalities, as they involve complex financial instruments and require careful consideration of risk factors. Additionally, smaller municipalities may lack the resources or expertise to effectively manage ZEBRA agreements.

How do municipalities determine the fixed and floating rates in a ZEBRA?

The fixed and floating rates in a ZEBRA are typically determined through negotiation between the municipality and the financial intermediary. Factors such as prevailing market rates, the municipality’s creditworthiness, and the terms of the debt obligations being hedged may influence the rates agreed upon.

What risks do municipalities face when entering into ZEBRA agreements?

Municipalities face several risks when entering into ZEBRA agreements, including counterparty risk with financial intermediaries, basis risk if the floating rate received does not perfectly match the rate on the municipality’s debt, and the potential for unforeseen market fluctuations affecting the effectiveness of the hedge.

How do ZEBRAs impact a municipality’s budget and financial stability?

ZEBRAs can have a significant impact on a municipality’s budget and financial stability by providing certainty in debt servicing costs and helping to mitigate interest rate risk. However, the effectiveness of ZEBRAs in enhancing financial stability depends on various factors, including market conditions, the terms of the agreements, and the municipality’s overall financial management practices.

Can municipalities unwind ZEBRA agreements if needed?

Unwinding ZEBRA agreements can be complex and may involve costs and potential financial implications for municipalities. Before entering into ZEBRA agreements, municipalities should carefully consider their ability to unwind the agreements if necessary and assess the potential risks and costs associated with early termination.

How do ZEBRAs comply with regulatory requirements for municipalities?

Municipalities must comply with regulatory requirements when entering into ZEBRA agreements, particularly in terms of financial disclosure, risk management, and adherence to applicable laws and regulations governing derivatives and financial instruments. Municipalities should work closely with legal and financial advisors to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and mitigate potential legal and financial risks.

Key takeaways

  • Zero basis risk swaps (ZEBRAs) are specialized interest rate swap agreements between municipalities and financial intermediaries.
  • ZEBRAs help municipalities stabilize cash flows and manage interest rate risk by exchanging fixed and floating rate payments.
  • Basis risk is eliminated in ZEBRAs, ensuring that the floating rate received by the municipality matches the rate it needs to pay on its debt.

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