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
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.