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Monday, August 09, 2021

Sudden Rise of the Floaters

by Rajeswari Sengupta and Harsh Vardhan.

The first two months of 2021-22 have witnessed a remarkable new trend in the corporate bond market—a sudden rise in the issuance of floating rate bonds or “floaters” and the use of the 91-day treasury bill yield as the reference rate in these bonds, instead of the yields on dated government securities (G-Secs).

We conjecture that one possible reason behind this new development could be an increase in the perception of interest risk on the part of the bond market participants. This in turn may have been a result of the active yield curve management undertaken by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). If indeed dated government bonds such as the 10-year G-Secs have lost relevance as benchmark securities then this can lead to serious mispricing of risk in the economy, an unintended consequence of the RBI’s bond market intervention.

An interesting development in the bond market

Over the three-month period from April to June 2021, about 7 percent of the total corporate bond issuance of Rs 1.02 trillion consisted of floating rate bonds. While this percentage looks small, it is important to keep in mind that for the previous ten years or more, the share of floating rate bonds in the total issuance of corporate bonds has been less than 1 percent.

It is also important to note that the firms issuing these bonds and the investors investing in them are not a new class of issuers and investors. They are the same issuers and investors who were issuing and buying fixed-rate bonds until recently. In particular, 100 percent of the floating rate bond issuers now are non-banking finance companies (NBFCs) who were earlier issuing fixed rate bonds, and the investors are the same mutual funds and banks who were investing in fixed rate bonds earlier. This could imply that their behaviour has now changed due to external developments. It is as if the bond issuers and investors have suddenly developed a taste for floaters.

Corporate bonds are typically issued with a maturity of more than one year, along with a coupon, which is the rate of interest to be paid on the bond. Most bonds have a ‘fixed’ coupon—the rate of interest on the bond is decided at the time of issuance of the bond and remains fixed over the life of the bond.

This rate is a function of two factors – (i) the prevailing risk-free interest rate for the maturity matching that of the bond, and (ii) the credit risk spread that is added to compensate the investors for the default risk associated with the issuer.

The risk-free reference rate is ideally the interest rate on the government security of similar maturity. The credit spread is the function of the credit rating of the issuer. For example, if a AAA-rated issuer wants to issue a 5-year maturity corporate bond, then the risk-free reference rate will be the rate for a 5-year government security (let’s say 5.7 percent). If the credit spread of the AAA-rated issuer is an additional 100 basis points (1 percent), then the bond will be issued with a fixed coupon of roughly 6.7 percent. Note that this rate will apply to all the future interest payments by the issuer until the bond matures even if the underlying risk-free rate changes. This means that the investor in this bond is taking the interest rate risk. The secondary market price of these bonds reacts to changes in the underlying interest rates – the bond prices fall if the risk-free interest rate increases and bond prices go up if the risk-free rate decreases.

In the case of a floating rate bond, the main components of determining the coupon remain the same—a reference rate and a credit risk premium. The crucial difference is that the reference rate is no longer fixed but changes over time. Hence, these bonds are referred to as ‘floating’. The coupon on these bonds clearly specifies the reference-floating rate.

If the bond in the example cited above were a floating rate bond, then the coupon on it will not be a fixed rate of 6.7 percent. Instead, it will be the rate on 5-year government security at the time of interest payment plus 1 percent. In other words, for a floating bond, the applicable interest is computed at the time of payment of interest. If the 5-year government security rate moves up by 0.5 percent in a year then the interest rate payable will become 7.2 percent. The investor in such a bond is more protected from interest rate risk and the prices of these bonds in the secondary market fluctuate much less with movements in interest rates.

In the last two months, floating rate bonds worth Rs 70 billion have been issued in the corporate bond market, almost entirely by private companies. Overall, bonds worth Rs 793 billion have been issued by the private sector including NBFCs. The floating rate bond issues in these two months thus represent around 10 percent of private sector bond issuance.

An interesting feature of these floaters issued in the last two months is that all of them have used the yield on 91-day treasury bills (T Bills) as the reference rate. Notwithstanding the fact that these corporate bonds have maturities ranging from 2 to 4 years, yields on dated government securities (i.e., G-Secs with maturity of more than 1 year) have not been used as a reference.

What might explain this sudden preference on the part of the issuers and investors for these floating bonds?

What might be going on?

One possibility could be a heightened perception of interest rate risk. Bond investors might be harbouring the belief that the interest rates on dated G-Secs are unlikely to remain at their current levels. As discussed earlier, issuing floating rate bonds is one way to mitigate interest rate risk. This raises the next question – why would the perception of interest rate risk suddenly go up now?

We conjecture that this could be a result of the manner in which the RBI has been managing interest rates in the government bond market. The Covid-19 pandemic presented the Indian economy with an unprecedented challenge. A combination of falling tax revenues and rising expenditure on account of fiscal stimulus resulted in a massive increase in the fiscal deficit of the government, and a corresponding rise in government borrowing from the bond market. In 2020-21 the consolidated government borrowing was a whopping Rs 21.5 trillion and the planned borrowing for 2021-22 is roughly Rs 19.6 trillion. The overall government debt to GDP ratio is roughly 90 percent, the highest ever.

The RBI on its part has taken multiple steps to ensure that interest rates are kept low in the bond market so that the government’s cost of borrowing remains under control. It has allowed several primary auctions of G-Secs to devolve on primary dealers and has even canceled auctions when it did not receive bids at rates that were low enough. In addition to its standard open market operations (OMOs), it initiated the Operation Twist program whose objective was to bring down interest rates at the long end of the yield curve and push up rates at the short end. This meant that the RBI was buying long-dated G-Secs and selling shorter maturity bonds.

In March 2021 the RBI launched a program called the G-SAP wherein for the first time it pre-committed to buying a specific amount of G-Secs. These bond market interventions are mostly aimed at capping the interest rate on the benchmark 10-year G-Sec at 6 percent. As a consequence of these actions, the RBI has ended up owning a substantial amount of the 10 year benchmark government bonds (link).

It is possible that bond investors believe that the RBI will not be able to suppress the interest rates for too long, and the rates will rise sharply and suddenly. This could be either because of the large volume of G-Secs the government needs to issue to finance its deficit or because of growing inflationary concerns in the Indian economy (CPI inflation has exceeded the upper limit of 6 percent of the RBI’s targeted inflation band in both May and June 2021), or because of external factors such as rising inflation in the US.

This is akin to a spring that has been forcefully compressed but can bounce back anytime. If the rates suddenly go up, holding fixed coupon bonds will lead to losses, as explained earlier. This increased risk perception might be one possible explanation as to why the investors now prefer floating rate bonds.

Arguably, another unintended consequence of the steps taken by the RBI to lower the long-term G-Sec yields and suppress the organic evolution of the yield curve in response to market forces may have been that the bond market participants have lost confidence in the yield curve.

In the past whenever inflation went up, 10-year G-Sec yields would also go up, implying a positive correlation between the two variables. The underlying idea is that rising inflation is usually followed by a tightening of the monetary policy stance which in turn leads to higher long term bond yields.

For instance, figure 1 below plots the 10-year G-Sec yield alongside CPI (consumer price index) inflation from 2004-05 to 2013-14. This was a period of high and rising inflation. CPI inflation went up from 3.8 percent in 2004-05 to more than 10 percent in 2012-13. Concomitantly, the 10- year rate went up from 6.6 percent in 2004-05 to more than 8 percent by 2012-13.

Figure 1: CPI Inflation and 10year G-Sec yield, 2004-05 to 2013-14

But recently this correlation seems to have broken down. We can see this clearly in figure 2, which plots the two series using monthly data, focusing on the period from March 2020 to June 2021. CPI inflation began rising from May 2020 onward. It consistently breached the 6 percent upper limit of the RBI’s targeted inflation band during the period April-October 2020, increasing from 5.8 percent in March to 7.6 percent in October. More recently it went up from 4.2 percent in April 2021 to 6.3 percent in June 2021.

Figure 2: CPI Inflation and 10year G-Sec yield, March 2020 to June 2021

However, this time around, rather than increasing, the 10-year G-Sec yield actually fell from 7.5 percent in April 2020 to 5.8 percent in May, since then holding more or less steady around 6 percent. These developments suggest that G-Sec rate might be distorted by the RBI’s interventions, which in turn might explain why some investors are turning to the T Bill rate as a preferred reference rate.

Other explanations are, of course, possible. The rise of floaters could also be a result of companies expecting interest rates to come down, in which case they would not want to issue long-term debt at higher rates. This however seems unlikely. Given that inflation continues to be a concern, interest rates are more likely to go up rather than down, and sooner or later RBI would need to start normalising the surplus liquidity situation that the financial system is currently in.

Alternatively, floaters could be issued if the private sector is tapping a new class of investors, who are interested in buying bonds but do not want to run any interest rate risk. But the issuers of and the investors in the floaters are exactly the same entities that were participating in fixed-rate bond transactions earlier.

Finally, it is also possible that the funding requirements of the NBFCs (the sole issuers of floating rate bonds right now) have undergone some changes which might have increased their preference for these bonds.


We are observing an interesting new development in the corporate bond market. The rise of floating rate bond issuances by private NBFCs, and the use of the 91day T Bill rate as the reference rate seem to indicate a change in the preferences on the part of both issuers and investors.

We conjecture that one reason that might explain this development is the intervention in the bond market by the RBI to control G-Sec yields. Specifically, it is possible that the RBI’s persistent interventions have caused some market participants to lose trust in the yield curve. This possibility needs to be explored further in the future.

If there has indeed been an erosion of credibility in the yield curve, then this would be a serious problem. The yield curve is a fundamental construct in a market economy, as it defines the interest rate structure that is used to price debt. As a result, if the yield curve is distorted, then interest rate risk is being mispriced. The associated misallocation of resources could prove to be costly, damaging the economy just as it struggles to recover from the Covid crisis.

Harsh Vardhan is Executive in Residence at the Center for Financial Studies (CFS) at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. Rajeswari Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR). The authors thank Josh Felman and an anonymous referee for their useful suggestions.

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