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The Fed’s Repo Market Bailout Is a Sign of Deeper Problems—That Are Getting Worse Over Time

September 26, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC

The repurchase, or repo, market is the grease gun that keeps financial markets lubricated, by banks and companies temporarily trading bonds for cash and then redeeming them, usually overnight. And it once worked smoothly.

Last week it hit a liquidity pothole, with a big cash shortage. The Federal Reserve swooped in with an immediate temporary $75 billion liquidity injection. According to Bank of America estimates, the Fed will need to undertake a further $400 billion bailout by purchasing bonds from the banks over the next year. The term for the latter action is quantitative easing (QE) and it looked like a minor replay of the global financial crisis. The irony? Banks together had more than $1.3 trillion in extra cash sitting with the Fed and earning interest—far more than the roughly $75 billion the Fed immediately pushed into the markets or even the entire $400 billion the rescue is estimated to run in its first year.

According to experts who spoke with Fortune, the bailout is a sign of something seriously wrong. There are issues with big banks, the Fed, and regulatory oversight. Until addressed, future liquidity crises seem increasingly likely, which could slow or even shut down lending, undercutting the economy.

What happened in the repo market?

The Federal funds rate is a target range of interest rates for unsecured overnight borrowing between banks, currently at 1.75% to 2%. But overnight borrowing, secured by Treasurys, is done much more broadly than just between banks and, on any given day, generates a range of rates from the lending that actually occurs. The Fed uses the rates from those transactions to calculate the SOFR, or the Secured Overnight Financing Rate.

If supply of cash is short or demand is heavy, the secured transaction rates used to calculate SOFR go up. When supply exceeds demand, those rates drop. Last week, the top end of the rates hit nearly 10% at one point, or five times the high end of the Fed funds rate. If there is more potential profit in broader markets, banks might be less willing to lend to one another at the lower Fed funds target range.

“[It’s] very, very strange that the repo rate skyrocketed overnight,” says Barry Mitnick, professor of business administration and public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business.

That’s why the Fed started pumping billions into the system, to bring supply back into line with demand. A popular explanation for the meltdown has been an unexpected need for cash. Companies had quarterly taxes and payments due the Treasury from the latest bond auctions. But the dates were known and amounts shouldn’t have surprised anyone. “Corporate taxes can certainly be forecast,” says John McColley, who heads the liquidity strategy team at Columbia Threadneedle Investments, as could the “net of about $54 billion owed” the Treasury.

And, while extreme, this wasn’t an isolated issue. Secured overnight rates have come close, and even gone beyond, the upper Fed rate range “many, many times” since 2018, says Chen Zhao, chief strategist at investment research firm Alpine Macro, which supplied a report on the topic to Fortune. The jumps past the top of the Fed’s range generally come at the ends of months and quarters, “which are normal times of higher liquidity needs,” says report author Henry Wu, head of quantitative research. “It shows a lack of liquidity buffer, that’s why you’re seeing breakouts,” Wu says.

Using a combination of data from the Fed, Fortune compared the high end of the secured transactions rates on a daily basis with the high end of the Fed’s target federal funds range on the same day. During almost all of 2018, the top end of the Fed range was larger than the top end of the secured transactions rates. But in 2019, from Jan. 2 (trading was closed on the New Year’s Day) through Sept. 24, there were only 15 days when the Fed’s high end was larger, a complete reversal. And while the spike was strongest last week, it was part of a regularly occurring pattern. (When asked to comment, Fed staff provided some data sources as well as recorded remarks by New York Fed President John Williams to Fortune.)

Multiple causes

The lack of liquidity in the repo market is only a symptom. “There isn’t any real economic catastrophe occurring,” says Tim Speiss, co-leader of the personal wealth advisors group at accounting and advisory firm EisnerAmper. “That this could be a regulatory matter makes the most sense.”

Domestic and international regulations since 2010 have been increasing the percentage of bank assets that must be liquid, which ironically exacerbates the problem. “A lot of liquid assets in the banking system are tied up by these requirements,” Zhao says, because banks must maintain the required percentages of liquid assets. If a bank uses cash for things like loans and speculative investment, the remaining liquid assets may drop below the necessary levels. Zhao estimates that lending capacity of banks has dropped as much as 25% as a result.

“When the plumbing gets clogged [in the big banks], you have these ancillary effects of not being able to finance their assets overnight,” says Kevin Heal, senior analyst and principal interest rate forecaster for Argus Research.

Bank issues

However, that is just one side of the coin. To increase profits, banks have focused on risky assets with higher returns. “Because banks have not shed some of their riskier assets, they don’t have the liquidity they need,” says banking regulation consultant Mayra Rodriguez Valladares. “Bankers are constantly talking about how they’re private companies and shouldn’t have such regulation. But they’re wayward teenagers and want Daddy Federal Reserve to save them.”

Banks also make 1.8% interest on money they keep on reserve with the Fed. Not just mandated on levels, but excess reserves that could use to cover liquidity shortfalls. The latter practice started with post-economic crash QE. “They had to compensate banks, which were giving up interest-bearing assets,” Zhao says. “But once you pay rates, some banks don’t have incentive to lend it out.”

The total is currently more than $1.3 trillion in excess reserves, meaning at least $19.5 billion in interest with no risk is paid to the banks every month. When repo pays 1.75% to 2.0%, banks may prefer to park all the extra and collect guaranteed interest.

There’s an additional problem, because the excess reserves are not evenly distributed. “Banks need a quantity of overnight liquidity, but they are handicapped by liquidity requirements, so they want to keep a high amount of reserves and they don’t particularly want to lend,” Wu says. Institutions with more liquidity “realize that what they have is in large demand so they raise the price, which is the interest rate.”

There is also a smaller number of banks that directly do business with the Fed than was true decades ago. “It used to be 35,” Heal says. “It’s now probably down into the low twenties.” That concentrates risk and makes problems more likely.

Fed missteps

Then there is the Fed’s attempt to wind down previous QE by selling securities back to the banks. From the opening of 2018 to mid-2019, the Fed reduced its balance sheet by about $1 trillion, according to data from the St. Louis Fed.

In the process, banks hand to the Fed an equivalent amount of cash. “We’ve seen the Fed’s balance sheet can’t be smaller than what it is now, and probably needs to be larger,” McColley said

Finally, bank regulators like the Fed have detailed information on banks’ current financial positions and should know the percentage of liquidity and amount of excess reserves, even if not privy to banks’ internal strategies.

Without fundamental changes, the repo turmoil, and the need for continued bailouts, could happen repeatedly, putting the economy at risk. Zhao says there are three things the Fed can do to help the situation: restart QE to inject capital, change regulatory requirements, or end interest payments on excess reserves.

A more active Fed approach has already effectively begun with the moves last week, which in recent remarks, New York Fed President John Williams called the “first non-test repo operation in many years.”

History suggests that reducing regulation on banks may not be a good idea. So, Zhao says cutting interest on excess reserves should be tried. “Get rid of it and see what happens,” he says.

This story has been updated to clarify certain terminology about rates and the Fed’s injection of liquidity into the market.

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