Validating Interest Rate Models

Many model validations—particularly validations of market risk models, ALM models, and mortgage servicing rights valuation models—require validators to evaluate an array of sub-models. These almost always include at least one interest rate model, which are designed to predict the movement of interest rates.

Validating interest rate models (i.e. short-rate models) can be challenging because many different ways of modeling how interest rates change over time (“interest rate dynamics”) have been created over the years. Each approach has advantages and shortcomings, and it is critical to distinguish the limitations and advantages of each of them  to understand whether the short-rate model being used is appropriate to the task. This can be accomplished via the basic tenets of model validation—evaluation of conceptual soundness, replication, benchmarking, and outcomes analysis. Applying these concepts to interest rate models, however, poses some unique complications.

A brief Introduction to the Short-Rate Model

In general, a short-rate model solves the short-rate evolution as a stochastic differential equation. Short-rate models can be categorized based on their interest rate dynamics.

A one-factor short-rate model has only one diffusion term. The biggest limitation of one-factor models is that the correlation between two continuously-compound spot rates at two dates is equal to one, which means a shock at a certain maturity is transmitted thoroughly across the curve that is not realistic in the market.

A multi-factor short-rate model, as its name implies, contains more than one diffusion term. Unlike one-factor models, multi-factor models consider the correlation between forward rates, which makes a multi-factor model more realistic and consistent with actual multi-dimension yield curve movements.

Validating Conceptual Soundness

Validating an interest rate model’s conceptual soundness includes reviewing its data inputs, mean-reversion feature, distributions of short rate, and model selection. Reviewing these items sufficiently requires a validator to possess a basic knowledge of stochastic calculus and stochastic differential equations.

Data Inputs

The fundamental data inputs to the interest rate model could be the zero-coupon curve (also known as term structure of interest rates) or the historical spot rates. Let’s take the Hull-White (H-W) one-factor model (H-W: drt = k(θ - rt)dt + σtdwt) as an example. H-W is an affine term structure model, of which analytical tractability is one of its most favorable properties. Analytical tractability is a valuable feature to model validators because it enables calculations to be replicated. We can calibrate the level parameter (θ) and the rate parameter (k) from the inputs curve. Commonly, the volatility parameter (σt) can be calibrated from historical data or swaptions volatilities. In addition, the analytical formulas are also available for zero-coupon bonds, caps/floors, and European swaptions.

Mean Reversion

Given the nature of mean reversion, both the level parameter and rate parameter should be positive. Therefore, an appropriate calibration method should be selected accordingly. Note the common approaches for the one-factor model—least square estimation and maximum likelihood estimation—could generate negative results, which are unacceptable by the mean-reversion feature. The model validator should compare different calibration results from different methods to see which method is the best approach for addressing the model assumption.

Short-Rate Distribution and Model Selection

The distribution of the short rate is another feature that we need to consider when we validate the short-rate model assumptions. The original short-rate models—Vasicek and H-W, for example—presume the short rate to be normally distributed, allowing for the possibility of negative rates. Because negative rates were not expected to be seen in the simulated term structures, the Cox-Ingersoll-Ross model (CIR, non-central chi-squared distributed) and Black-Karasinski model (BK, lognormal distributed) were invented to preclude the existence of negative rates. Compared to the normally distributed models, the non-normally distributed models forfeit a certain degree of analytical tractability, which makes validating them less straightforward. In recent years, as negative rates became a reality in the market, the shifted lognormal distributed model was introduced. This model is dependent on the shift size, determining a lower limit in the simulation process. Note there is no analytical formula for the shift size. Ideally, the shift size should be equal to the absolute value of the minimum negative rate in the historical data. However, not every country experienced negative interest rates, and therefore, the shift size is generally determined by the user’s experience by means of fundamental analysis.

The model validator should develop a method to quantify the risk from any analytical judgement. Because the interest rate model often serves as a sub-model in a larger module, the model selection should also be commensurate with the module’s ultimate objectives.


Effective model validation frequently relies on a replication exercise to determine whether a model follows the building procedures stated in its documentation. In general, the model documentation provides the estimation method and assorted data inputs. The model validator could consider recalibrating the parameters from the provided interest rate curve and volatility structures. This process helps the model validator better understand the model, its limitations, and potential problems.

Ongoing Monitoring & Benchmarking

Interest rate models are generally used to simulate term structures in order to price caps/floors and swaptions and measure the hedge cost. Let’s again take the H-W model as an example. Two standard simulation methods are available for the H-W model: 1) Monte Carlo simulation and 2) trinomial lattice method. The model validator could use these two methods to perform benchmarking analysis against one another.

The Monte Carlo simulation works ideally for the path-dependent interest rate derivatives. The Monte Carlo method is mathematically easy to understand and convenient for implementation. At each time step, a random variable is simulated and added into the interest rate dynamics. A Monte Carlo simulation is usually considered for products that can only be exercised at maturity. Since the Monte Carlo method simulates the future rates, we cannot be sure at which time the rate or the value of an option becomes optimal. Hence, a standard Monte Carlo approach cannot be used for derivatives with early-exercise capability.

On the other hand, we can price early-exercise products by means of the trinomial lattice method. The trinomial lattice method constructs a trinomial tree under the risk-neutral measure, in which the value at each node can be computed. Given the tree’s backward-looking feature, at each node we can compare the intrinsic value (current value) with the backwardly inducted value (continuous value), determining whether to exercise at a given node. The comparison step will keep running backwardly until it reaches the initial node and returns the final estimated value. Therefore, trinomial lattice works ideally for non-path-dependent interest rate derivatives. Nevertheless, lattice can be also implemented for path-dependent derivatives for the purpose of benchmarking.

Normally, we would expect to see that the simulated result from the lattice method is less accurate and more volatile than the result from the Monte Carlo simulation method, because a larger number of simulated paths can be selected in the Monte Carlo method. This will make the simulated result more stable, assuming the same computing cost and the same time step.

Outcomes Analysis

The most straightforward method for outcomes analysis is to perform sensitivity tests on the model’s key drivers. A standardized one-factor short-rate model usually contains three parameters. For the level parameter (θ), we can calibrate the equilibrium rate-level from the simulated term structure and compare with θ. For the mean-reversion speed parameter (k), we can examine the half-life, which equals to ln ⁡(2)/k , and compare with the realized half-life from simulated term structure. For the volatility parameter (σt), we would expect to see the larger volatility yields a larger spread in the simulated term structure. We can also recalibrate the volatility surface from the simulated term structure to examine if the number of simulated paths is sufficient to capture the volatility assumption.

As mentioned above, an affine term structure model is analytically tractable, which means we can use the analytical formula to price zero-coupon bonds and other interest rate derivatives. We can compare the model results with the market prices, which can also verify the functionality of the given short-rate model.


The popularity of certain types of interest rate models changes as fast as the economy. In order to keep up, it is important to build a wide range of knowledge and continue learning new perspectives. Validation processes that follow the guidelines set forth in the OCC’s and FRB’s Supervisory Guidance on Model Risk Management (OCC 2011-12 and SR 11-7) seek to answer questions about the model’s conceptual soundness, development, process, implementation, and outcomes.  While the details of the actual validation process vary from bank to bank and from model to model, an interest rate model validation should seek to address these matters by asking the following questions:

  • Are the data inputs consistent with the assumptions of the given short-rate model?
  • What distribution does the interest rate dynamics imply for the short-rate model?
  • What kind of estimation method is applied in the model?
  • Is the model analytically tractable? Are there explicit analytical formulas for zero-coupon bond or bond-option from the model?
  • Is the model suitable for the Monte Carlo simulation or the lattice method?
  • Can we recalibrate the model parameters from the simulated term structures?
  • Does the model address the needs of its users?

These are the fundamental questions that we need to think about when we are trying to validate any interest rate model. Combining these with additional questions specific to the individual rate dynamics in use will yield a robust validation analysis that will satisfy both internal and regulatory demands.