Starting in the 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, the world became a riskier place for the financial institutions described in this part of the book. Swings in interest rates widened, and the bond and stock markets went through some episodes of increased volatility. As a result of these developments, managers of financial institutions became more concerned with reducing the risk their institutions faced. Given the greater demand for risk reduction, the process of financial innovation described in Chapter 10 came to the rescue by producing new financial instruments that help financial institution managers manage risk better. These instruments, called financial derivatives, have payoffs that are linked to previously issued securities and are extremely useful risk reduction tools.
In this chapter, we look at the most important financial derivatives that managers of financial institutions use to reduce risk: forward contracts, financial futures, options, and swaps. We examine not only how markets for each of these financial derivatives work but also how they can be used by financial institutions to manage risk. We also study financial derivatives because they have become an important source of profits for financial institutions, particularly larger banks, which, as we saw in Chapter 10, have found their traditional business declining.
Financial derivatives are so effective in reducing risk because they enable financial institutions to hedge—that is, engage in a financial transaction that reduces or eliminates risk. When a financial institution has bought an asset, it is said to have taken a long position, and this exposes the institution to risk if the returns on the asset are uncertain. Conversely, if it has sold an asset that it has agreed to deliver to another party at a future date, it is said to have taken a short position, and this can also expose the institution to risk. Financial derivatives can be used to reduce risk by invoking the following basic principle of hedging: Hedging risk involves engaging in a financial transaction that offsets a long position by taking an additional short position, or offsets a short position by taking an additional long position. In other words, if a financial institution has bought a security and has therefore taken a long position, it conducts a hedge by contracting to sell that security (take a short position) at some future date. Alternatively, if it has taken a short position by selling a security that it needs to deliver at a future date, then it conducts a hedge by contracting to buy that security (take a long position) at a future date. We look at how this principle can be applied using forward and futures contracts.