Although the repo market is little known to most people, it is a $1-trillion-a-day credit machine, in which not just banks but hedge funds and other “shadow banks” borrow to finance their trades. Under the Federal Reserve Act, the central bank’s lending window is open only to licensed depository banks; but the Fed is now pouring billions of dollars into the repo (repurchase agreements) market, in effect making risk-free loans to speculators at less than 2%.
This does not serve the real economy, in which products, services and jobs are created. However, the Fed is trapped into this speculative monetary expansion to avoid a cascade of defaults of the sort it was facing with the long-term capital management crisis in 1998 and the Lehman crisis in 2008. The repo market is a fragile house of cards waiting for a strong wind to blow it down, propped up by misguided monetary policies that have forced central banks to underwrite its highly risky ventures.
That is what is happening now in the repo market. Repos work like a pawn shop: the lender takes an asset (usually a federal security) in exchange for cash, with an agreement to return the asset for the cash plus interest the next day unless the loan is rolled over. In September 2019, rates on repos should have been about 2%, in line with the fed funds rate (the rate at which banks borrow deposits from each other). However, repo rates shot up to 10% on Sept. 17. Yet banks were refusing to lend to each other, evidently passing up big profits to hold onto their cash. Since banks weren’t lending, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York jumped in, increasing its overnight repo operations to $75 billion. On Oct. 23, it upped the ante to $165 billion, evidently to plug a hole in the repo market created when JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest depository bank, pulled an equivalent sum out. (For details, see my earlier post here.)