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How Unregulated Banking Triggered the Crash of '08

Repo, Baby, Repo

by MIKE WHITNEY

“Repo has a flaw: It is vulnerable to panic, that is, ‘depositors’ may ‘withdraw’ their money at any time, forcing the system into massive deleveraging. We saw this over and over again with demand deposits in all of U.S. history prior to deposit insurance. This problem has not been addressed by the Dodd-Frank legislation. So, it could happen again.”

–Gary B. Gorton, Professor of Management and Finance, Yale School of Management (lifted from Repowatch)

Subprime mortgages did not cause the financial crisis, nor did the housing bubble or Lehman Brothers. The financial crisis originated in a corner of the shadow banking system called the repo market. That’s where the bank run occurred that froze the secondary market, sent prices on mortgage-backed assets plunging, and pushed the financial system into a death spiral. In the Great Crash of 2008, repo was ground zero, the epicenter of the global catastrophe. As analyst David Weidner noted in the Wall Street Journal, “The repo market wasn’t just a part of the meltdown. It was the meltdown.”

Regrettably, the Federal Reserve’s nontraditional monetary policies (ZIRP and QE) have succeeded in restoring the repo market to it’s precrisis level of activity, but without implementing any of the changes that would have made the system safer. Repo is as vulnerable and crisis-prone today as it was when the French bank PNB Paribas stopped redemptions in its off-balance sheet operations in 2007 kicking off the tumultuous bank run that would eventually implode the entire system and push the economy into the deepest slump since the Great Depression. By failing to rein in repo, the Fed has ensured that financial crises will be a regular feature in the future occurring every 15 or 20 years as was the case before banks were more strictly regulated and government backstops were put in place. Repo returns us to Wild West “anything goes” banking.

Why would the Fed be so reckless and pave the way for another disaster? We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s give a brief explanation of repo and how the system works.

Repo is short for repurchase agreement. The repo market is where primary dealers sell securities with an agreement for the seller to buy back the securities at a later date. This sounds more complicated than it is. What’s really going on is the seller (primary dealers) are getting short-term loans from money market funds, securities firms, banks etc in order to maintain a position in securities in which they’re suppose to make markets. So, repo is like a loan that’s secured with collateral. (ie–the securities) It is a “funding mechanism”.

What touched off the Crash of 2008, was the discovery that the collateral that was being used for repo funding was “toxic”, that is, the securities were not Triple A after all, but subprime mortgage-backed gunk that would only fetch pennies on the dollar. So, when PNB Paribas stopped redemptions in its off-balance sheet operations on August 9, 2007, the rout began. Cash-heavy investors (like money markets) turned off the lending spigot, which reduced trillions of dollars of MBS to junk-status, precipitated massive fire sales of distressed assets that were dumped on the market pushing prices further and further down wiping out trillions in equity and reducing the financial system to a smoldering pile of rubble. That’s why the Fed stepped in, backstopped the system with explicit guarantees for both regulated and unregulated financial institutions and set about to reflate financial asset prices to their precrisis highs.

Newly appointed Fed chairman Janet Yellen summarized what happened in the panic in a speech she gave earlier this year. She said:

“The trigger for the acute phase of the financial crisis was the rapid unwinding of large amounts of short-term wholesale funding that had been made available to highly leveraged and/or maturity-transforming financial firms.”

In other words, the crisis began in repo. Unfortunately, Wall Street has fended off all attempts to fix the system, because repo is a particularly lucrative area of activity. And we are talking serious money here, too. Tri-party repo alone–which is a small subset of the larger repo market–represents “about $1.6 trillion in outstanding repos daily.” That means that the prospect of a big dealer dumping his portfolio of securities on the market at a moment’s notice igniting another panic, is never far away.

Why do banks borrow in the unregulated, shadow system instead of conducting their business in the light of day where regulators can check the quality of the underlying collateral, oversee the various transactions on public trading platforms, and make sure that capital requirements are maintained?

It’s because the banks want to deploy all their capital, leverage up to their eyeballs and play fast-and-loose with the rules. Here’s what the New York Fed has to say on the topic:

“One clear motivation for intermediation outside of the traditional banking system is for private actors to evade regulation and taxes. The academic literature documents that motivation explains part of the growth and collapse of shadow banking over the past decade…

Regulation typically forces private actors to do something which they would otherwise not do: pay taxes to the official sector, disclose additional information to investors, or hold more capital against financial exposures. Financial activity which has been re-structured to avoid taxes, disclosure, and/or capital requirements, is referred to as arbitrage activity.” (“Shadow Bank Monitoring“, Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports, September, 2013)

In other words, the banks are conducting their operations in the shadows because it’s cheaper. That’s what this is all about. Here’s more from the same report:

“While the fundamental reason for commercial bank runs is the sequential servicing constraint, for shadow banks the effective constraint is the presence of fire sale externalities. In a run, shadow banking entities have to sell assets at a discount, which depresses market pricing. This provides incentives to withdraw funding—before other shadow banking depositors arrive.”

Okay, so when there’s a run on the local bank, the bank may have to offload some of its illiquid assets (real estate, commercial property, etc) to meet the increased demand of depositors who want their money, but they can also rely on government backing. (deposit insurance). But with shadow banking–like repo– it’s a bit different; the problem is fire sales. For example, when repo lenders–like the big money markets–demanded more collateral from the banks in exchange for short-term funding; the banks were forced to dump more of their assets en masse pushing prices lower, eroding their equity and leaving many of the banks deep in the red. This is how the panic wiped out Wall Street and cleared the way for the $700 TARP bailout. It all started in repo.

The point is, had the system been adequately regulated with the appropriate safeguards in place, there would have been no fire sales, no panic, and no crisis. Regulators would have made sure that the underlying collateral was legit, that is, they would have made sure that the subprime borrowers were creditworthy and able to repay their loans. They would have made sure that repo borrowers (the banks) had sufficient capital to meet redemptions if problems arose. And regulators would have limited excessive leveraging of the securitized assets.

Regulation works. It provides safety, stability, and security as opposed to panic, bankruptcy and severe recession which is the scenario that Wall Street’s profiteers seem to prefer. Now check this out from the NY Fed:

“While leveraged lending collapsed in 2008 from a peak of $680 billion in 2007, it has rebounded very quickly, and is now at record levels of volume, projected to be larger than $1 trillion in 2013…” (NY Fed)

How’s that for progress, eh? So, Bernanke’s reflation efforts have effectively restored the same shabby, poorly designed system to its former glory putting all of us at risk again. Here’s more:

“One area of concern, however, is the significant increase in the fraction of covenant lite loans, which have increased dramatically from 0 percent in 2010 to 60 percent in 2013. This deterioration in loan underwriting has come hand-in-hand with an increased presence of retail investors in the leveraged loan market, through both CLOs and prime funds, as relatively sophisticated investors, like banks and hedge funds, are exiting the asset class.” (New York Fed)

Great. So now we are seeing the same problems that emerged in 2004 and 2005 with subprime mortgages, that is, there’s so much liquidity in the system–thanks to the Fed’s zero rates and QE– that investors are dabbling in all-types of risky garbage that you wouldn’t normally touch with a 10 foot dungpole. Check this out from Testosterone Pit:

“Shadow banking loans are estimated to have reached $15 trillion in the US. And among them is a particularly hot category: lending to highly leveraged companies with junk credit ratings. … the NY Fed found that these loans are increasingly issued in a loosey-goosey manner, with low underwriting standards. And issuance has soared…

Layered into these crappy and risky loans are the crappiest and riskiest of all loans, namely “covenant-lite” loans. Their covenants are so watered down and so full of holes that investors have few if any protections in case of default. If the Fed ever allows reality to set, and these companies stumble under their load of debt or can’t refinance it at ridiculously low rates, investors can kiss their money goodbye.” …

these desperate small investors…have unknowingly made a quantum leap in risk – allowing the smart money, which hears the hot air hissing from the credit bubble, to bail out. This must be one of the proudest moments in Chairman Bernanke’s glorious tenure.” (“Fed: Hedge Funds, Banks Sell Crappiest Debt To Small Investors (Before Credit Bubble Blows Up) ” Testosterone Pit)

Nice, eh? So the big boys are planning to vamoose before the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Meanwhile, Mom and Pop are about to get reamed for the umpteenth time when the Fed “tapers” and these covenant lite IEDs blow up in their face taking another sizable chunk out of their retirement savings. Way to go, Bernanke. Here’s more from the NY Fed report:

“Shadow credit transformation increased from only 5 percent of total credit transformation in 1945 to a peak amount of 60 percent in 2008 before declining to 55 percent in 2011.”

So now the shadow players are generating more than half of all the nation’s credit via their dodgy, unregulated operations. Why? So a handful of ravenous banks can make bigger profits.

According to the Financial Stability Board (FSB) “credit intermediation that takes place in an environment where prudential regulatory standards and supervisory oversight are either not applied or are applied to a materially lesser or different degree than is the case for regular banks engaged in similar activities.” (FSB, 2011).

Read that over again. What they’re saying is that it’s a completely ridiculous, insane system. We’ve given the banks this outrageous privilege of creating private money out of thin air, (credit) and they spit in our face. They won’t even follow a few simple rules that would make the process safer for everyone. Keep in mind, that Dodd Frank does nothing to remedy the problems in repo.

One last thing (from the NY Fed):

“Intermediaries create liquidity in the shadow banking system by levering up the collateral value of their assets. However, the liquidity creation comes at the cost of financial fragility as fluctuations in uncertainty cause a flight to quality from shadow liabilities to safe assets. The collapse of shadow banking liquidity has real effects via the pricing of credit and generates prolonged slumps after adverse shocks.”

Repeat: “liquidity creation comes at the cost of financial fragility as fluctuations in uncertainty cause a flight to quality from shadow liabilities to safe assets.”

Can you believe it? The Fed doesn’t even try to deny what’s going on. They admit that letting the banks ratchet up their leverage increases “financial fragility ” which could precipitate another crash. (“flight to quality from shadow liabilities to safe assets.”) In other words, the Fed KNOWS the system is nuts, just like they know that it’s only a matter of time before the whole bloody thing blows up again and the economy goes off the cliff. Still, they’re not going to lift a finger to change the system.

Why?

You know why.

Because a few fatcats at the top like the way things are now, that’s why.

If that doesn’t make your blood boil, I don’t know what will.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Whitney’s story on declining wages for working class Americans appears in the June issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.