The repo market: a faultline waiting for a crisis?

A source of vast leveraging.

In 1987, having been swept from the Oxford University metallurgy department to Wall Street, I was given a grim warning at a meeting. “We have exacting standards. Only the very best will succeed on our graduate training program. For those of you who do not make it, your fate lies here…” at which our eyes were directed towards a row of desk-bound troglodytes feasting upon pizza at seven in the morning. It was the Repo desk.

If capitalism really is doomed to go through periodic crises then you are well advised to look for the next problem in the place where you previously thought inconsequential. In the 1990’s a curiosity evolved that allowed investors to insure against a company going bust these days known as credit default swaps.  Eighteen years later, after the hilarity had died down and we’d all wiped a collective tear from our eye, credit default swaps brought down AIG, caused the biggest bankruptcy in corporate history and contributed to the near-vaporization of the global financial system.

The same can be said of the repo market – on the face of it, it looks like nothing but has an underlying menace we should take notice of.  Repo stands for repurchase and it works the same way as pawnbroking. You take a watch to a pawnbroker and borrow money against it. A week later you have to pay back the money plus interest to get the watch back, or repurchase it. The repo market merely uses financial securities, such as government bonds, for collateral, instead of watches. It sounds like a simple and safe thing to do but in the wrong hands it can be deadly.

The danger comes from the fact that it allows people with no money to access vast amounts of securities. A hedge fund or bank can buy securities THEN go looking for the money to pay for them through the repo market. All is well as long as you are earning more on the securities than you are paying in interest for the repo market loan that pays for them. But if the market value of the securities begins to fall you are in real trouble.

Nobody knows how large the repo market actually is. Estimates range between ten to fifteen trillion dollars or bigger than the annual income of the entire United States. But what we do know is that the process of quantitative easing has pumped the system up with lots of cheap money. At the same time our central banks have given those who use the repo market the confidence that their securities (bonds and equities) won’t fall in value. It’s a poisonous combination: a rise in borrowing costs combined with a decline in the value of securities would lead to a stampede for the door and someone will get trampled on. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in a recent, seemingly innocuous, speech let the cat out of the bag when he said that “More work is needed to better prepare investors and other market participants to deal with the potential consequences of a default by a large participant in the repo market.” In other words, it’s coming. Low interest rates and stable securities values won’t last forever. Someone is going out of business.

Psychologists put our periodic crises down to people’s inability to self-limit. Anthropologists put it down to western culture’s inability to join up the various silos in society to reveal the whole, faulted, picture. In reality, to spot the next crisis all you have to do is follow the money: it’s with the troglodytes on the Repo desk.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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