Asset Liability Management in Risk Framework
Asset-Liability Management (ALM) can be termed as a risk management technique designed to earn an adequate return while maintaining a comfortable surplus of assets beyond liabilities. It takes into consideration interest rates, earning power, and degree of willingness to take on debt and hence is also known as Surplus Management.
But in the last decade the meaning of ALM has evolved. It is now used in many different ways under different contexts. ALM, which was actually pioneered by financial institutions and banks, are now widely being used in industries too. The Society of Actuaries Task Force on ALM Principles, Canada, offers the following definition for ALM: "Asset Liability Management is the on-going process of formulating, implementing, monitoring, and revising strategies related to assets and liabilities in an attempt to achieve financial objectives for a given set of risk tolerances and constraints."
Basis of Asset-Liability Management
Traditionally, banks and insurance companies used accrual system of accounting for all their assets and liabilities. They would take on liabilities - such as deposits, life insurance policies or annuities. They would then invest the proceeds from these liabilities in assets such as loans, bonds or real estate. All these assets and liabilities were held at book value. Doing so disguised possible risks arising from how the assets and liabilities were structured.
Consider a bank that borrows 1 Crore (100 Lakhs) at 6 % for a year and lends the same money at 7 % to a highly rated borrower for 5 years. The net transaction appears profitable-the bank is earning a 100 basis point spread - but it entails considerable risk. At the end of a year, the bank will have to find new financing for the loan, which will have 4 more years before it matures. If interest rates have risen, the bank may have to pay a higher rate of interest on the new financing than the fixed 7 % it is earning on its loan.
Suppose, at the end of a year, an applicable 4-year interest rate is 8 %. The bank is in serious trouble. It is going to earn 7 % on its loan but would have to pay 8 % on its financing. Accrual accounting does not recognize this problem. Based upon accrual accounting, the bank would earn Rs 100,000 in the first year although in the preceding years it is going to incur a loss.
The problem in this example was caused by a mismatch between assets and liabilities. Prior to the 1970's, such mismatches tended not to be a significant problem. Interest rates in developed countries experienced only modest fluctuations, so losses due to asset-liability mismatches were small or trivial. Many firms intentionally mismatched their balance sheets and as yield curves were generally upward sloping, banks could earn a spread by borrowing short and lending long.
Things started to change in the 1970s, which ushered in a period of volatile interest rates that continued till the early 1980s. US regulations which had capped the interest rates so that banks could pay depositors, was abandoned which led to a migration of dollar deposit overseas. Managers of many firms, who were accustomed to thinking in terms of accrual accounting, were slow to recognize this emerging risk. Some firms suffered staggering losses. Because the firms used accrual accounting, it resulted in more of crippled balance sheets than bankruptcies. Firms had no options but to accrue the losses over a subsequent period of 5 to 10 years.
One example, which drew attention, was that of US mutual life insurance company "The Equitable." During the early 1980s, as the USD yield curve was inverted with short-term interest rates sky rocketing, the company sold a number of long-term Guaranteed Interest Contracts (GICs) guaranteeing rates of around 16% for periods up to 10 years. Equitable then invested the assets short-term to earn the high interest rates guaranteed on the contracts. But short-term interest rates soon came down. When the Equitable had to reinvest, it couldn't get even close to the interest rates it was paying on the GICs. The firm was crippled. Eventually, it had to demutualize and was acquired by the Axa Group.
Increasingly banks and asset management companies started to focus on Asset-Liability Risk. The problem was not that the value of assets might fall or that the value of liabilities might rise. It was that capital might be depleted by narrowing of the difference between assets and liabilities and that the values of assets and liabilities might fail to move in tandem. Asset-liability risk is predominantly a leveraged form of risk.
The capital of most financial institutions is small relative to the firm's assets or liabilities, and so small percentage changes in assets or liabilities can translate into large percentage changes in capital. Accrual accounting could disguise the problem by deferring losses into the future, but it could not solve the problem. Firms responded by forming asset-liability management (ALM) departments to assess these asset-liability risk.
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