A swap is a derivative contract through which two parties exchange financial instruments or cash flows. Swaps are most commonly used for hedging purposes in the finance industry. The two most common types of swaps are interest rate swaps and currency swaps. Swaps allow parties to exchange interest or currency in order to take advantage of comparative advantages and mitigate risks.

Introduction to Swaps

A swap is a contractual agreement between two parties to exchange sequences of cash flows over a predetermined timeframe. The cash flows that the counterparties pay each other are tied to the performance of specific underlying assets like currencies, bonds, commodities, or interest rates.

Swaps were first introduced in the early 1980s as a way for companies to mitigate their exposure to fluctuations in interest and exchange rates. Since then, swaps have become one of the largest and most actively traded markets globally. The growth of the swaps market is due to their usefulness in allowing companies to customize their risk exposures and more efficiently raise capital.

There are two major types of swaps:

Interest Rate Swaps

An interest rate swap involves the exchange of interest payments between two parties. In the most common type of interest rate swap, one party pays a fixed interest rate, while the other pays a floating interest rate tied to a benchmark like LIBOR. Interest rate swaps allow companies to reduce mismatches between their assets and liabilities.

For example, Company A may have floating rate debt but want fixed interest payments to reduce uncertainty. Company B has fixed rate debt but wants floating rate exposure to benefit from potential rate decreases. The two companies can enter into an interest rate swap where Company A pays Company B a fixed interest payment on a notional principal amount, and Company B pays Company A a floating interest payment based on the same notional amount.

Currency Swaps

A currency swap involves exchanging principal and interest payments in one currency for principal and interest payments in another currency. Companies commonly use currency swaps to fund foreign operations or change the currency profile of their debt.

For instance, Company C may have debt denominated in U.S. dollars but operate primarily in Europe with euro earnings. Company D is a European company with euro debt but U.S. dollar earnings. The two companies could execute a currency swap where Company C pays Company D fixed rate U.S. dollar interest payments plus principal at maturity. In return, Company D would pay Company C fixed euro interest payments plus euro principal at maturity. This benefits both companies by better aligning their cash flows with their operating currencies.

Key Functions and Benefits of Swaps

There are several key functions and benefits that swaps provide participants:

Hedging Exposures

The most common use of swaps is to hedge risk exposures. By swapping payments, companies can convert exposures from floating to fixed rates, or from one currency to another to better match their underlying business. This hedging process helps protect companies from adverse market movements.

Access to Global Markets

Swaps allow companies to efficiently access global capital markets and funding sources. Firms can raise funding in one market then swap the payments into another more advantageous currency or interest profile. This expands companies’ liquidity options beyond their local funding markets.

Customize Cash Flows

Through customized swap terms, companies can tailor cash flows to meet their specific needs. For example, a company can fine-tune the timing of cash flows for optimal capital planning using non-standard payment schedules.


In addition to hedging, swaps are used by hedge funds and other institutional investors to speculate on interest rate and currency movements. These investors try to profit from directional bets using leveraged swap positions.


Swaps also allow for low-risk arbitrage strategies. Traders can exploit small pricing inefficiencies between swap rates and bond yields or currencies to earn small profits with minimal principal risk.

Swap Pricing and Valuation

The value of a swap is based on the present value of its future cash flows. Valuation relies on forecasting the variable cash flows and discounting them at the appropriate rates. The fixed rate on a swap is set so the initial value of the swap is zero, allowing for an even exchange of cash flows.

The valuation of swaps utilizes bootstrapping of yield curves and other standard valuation techniques. Common pricing methods include:

  • Present value approach
  • Option pricing models
  • Monte Carlo simulation

After a swap has been initiated, its value will change based on shifts in interest rates, exchange rates, and other factors. Swaps must be continually marked-to-market over their lifetimes. Standard industry valuation models are used for daily pricing.

Main Swap Participants

There are generally considered to be four main categories of participants in the swaps market:


Hedgers are companies or financial institutions that use swaps to mitigate risks on the asset or liability side of their balance sheets. Hedgers enter swaps to convert exposures from floating to fixed rates or from foreign to domestic currencies. Examples include banks, corporations, mortgage originators, and institutional investors.


Speculators aim to profit from anticipated moves in interest rates, currencies, and other factors. Hedge funds and proprietary trading desks at investment banks are the most common speculative traders in swaps. Speculators take naked swap positions without an underlying cash position to hedge.


Arbitrageurs attempt to profit from minor pricing inefficiencies between swaps and other assets like bonds, futures, and currencies. These traders use quantitative models to discover small distortions to exploit. Investment banks and hedge funds conduct most arbitrage trading.


Swap dealers act as market makers providing liquidity. These are large global banks that quote bid and ask prices and stand ready to transact in size. Dealers offset their risks from client trades through their own hedging programs. Many also attempt to generate trading profits through propriety positioning.

Main Types of Swap Agreements

While interest rate and currency swaps are most common, there are numerous types of swap structures used in the marketplace. Below are some of the primary types of swap agreements:

  • Commodity swaps – exchange floating commodity prices for fixed prices
  • Equity swaps – exchange equity performance for fixed or floating cash flows
  • Credit default swaps (CDS) – a type of insurance against default risk
  • Total return swaps – exchange total returns from an asset for LIBOR or another index
  • Variance/volatility swaps – allow trading volatility as an asset unto itself
  • Inflation swaps – hedge inflation risk by exchanging fixed and floating cash flows tied to price indices

Swaps can also have more complex structures combining multiple legs and asset classes. Exotic swaps are less standardized and trade over-the-counter.

Main Risks of Swaps

While offering many advantages, swaps also come with distinct risks participants must understand and actively manage:

Counterparty Risk

Counterparty risk is the primary risk in swaps. There is a possibility that the counterparty defaults leaving a party with an unhedged exposure from the swap. Strict counterparty credit limits and collateral requirements help mitigate this risk.

Interest Rate Risk

In an interest rate swap, there is interest rate risk related to the floating leg. Changes in interest rates alter the future cash flows under the contract.

Basis Risk

There is basis risk when the floating index used in a swap does not perfectly correlate with the underlying exposure the swap is hedging. Even if LIBOR moves down, funding costs may not move down equally.

Early Termination

One party terminating the swap early can leave the other party scrambling to replace the position in a potentially adverse market environment. Breakage fees help compensate for this risk.

Documentation Risk

Poorly documented swaps can leave firms open to legal disputes and unintended exposures. Proper legal documentation is crucial.

Swap Trading Mechanics

Most swaps trade over-the-counter through dealers rather than on exchanges. Here are some key mechanics of how swaps trade:

Standard Agreements

Transactions are executed under ISDA Master Agreements which provide standard terms and conditions. The ISDA agreement helps provide legal certainty.

Credit Support

Collateral posting requirements are specified in credit support annexes to ISDA contracts. Collateral must be posted by the party that is out of the money.


Economic details are spelled out in written confirmations exchanged between the counterparties. Confirmations legally supplement the ISDA terms.


Many swaps now clear through central clearinghouses which helps standardize and guarantee the transactions.


Compression services consolidate offsetting swap trades to reduce gross notional exposures. This optimization lowers capital requirements.


Swaps can be novated to other counterparties who step into one side of the trade at agreed upon terms. This provides assignment flexibility.

Swap Market Infrastructure

The swaps market maintains a specialized financial market infrastructure to facilitate trading:

Interdealer Brokers (IDBs)

IDBs act as intermediaries that pair up dealers and brokers for swaps trades. IDB screens provide liquidity and price discovery.

Swap Data Repositories

These collect and maintain reference data on swap transactions mandated for reporting by global regulations. Improves transparency.

Swap Execution Facilities (SEFs)

Under Dodd-Frank regulations, certain swaps must execute on these electronic platforms. Promotes pre-trade price transparency.

Central Counterparties (CCPs)

CCPs act as intermediaries for trades that are centrally cleared. The CCP becomes the buyer for every seller and vice versa, reducing counterparty exposures.

Bloomberg & Reuters

These terminals supply continuous indicative quotes for swaps facilitating shopping and price discovery. Used for requesting dealer quotes.

This specialized swap infrastructure provides the liquidity, transparency, standardization, and risk mitigation that allows the market to thrive.

The swaps market has undergone significant changes since the 2008 financial crisis. Some of the major trends include:

  • Stricter regulations like Dodd-Frank requiring central clearing and exchange trading
  • Consolidation among top swap dealers
  • Technological improvements in electronic trading platforms
  • Compression services drastically reducing outstanding notional amounts
  • Declining swap trading revenues at banks due to lower volatility
  • Continued growth in emerging market swaps

Going forward, swaps will likely remain a critical tool for hedging and accessing global capital. However, the profitability of swaps trading will be challenged due to regulatory changes and bank capital requirements. Expect more automation and likely migration toward futures-based instruments. But even with market shifts, swaps will continue serving their vital economic functions.


In summary, swaps provide important hedging and risk management utility to companies and investors. Allowing the exchange of cash flows, swaps enable the customization of risk-reward profiles aligned with strategic objectives. While swaps carry counterparty and other risks requiring sound governance, their flexibility and liquidity offer opportunities unavailable through securities alone. Swaps will remain an integral tool for accessing capital globally and mitigating financial risks amid evolving market structures. But harnessing their benefits prudently via robust risk analytics remains imperative.