The repo market: a faultline waiting for a crisis?

A source of vast leveraging.

New Statesman

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.