June 21, 2009 10:31 pm

Fed plans repo markets revamp

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The US Federal Reserve is considering dramatic changes to the giant repurchase – or repo – markets where banks around the world raise overnight dollar loans.

The plans include creating a utility to replace the Wall Street banks that handle transactions, people familiar with the matter say.

The Fed’s deliberations are partly motivated by concerns that the structure of the US overnight repurchase market may have exacerbated the financial turmoil that accompanied the failure of Lehman Brothers in September last year.

Fed officials plan to meet next month with market participants to discuss reforms.

People familiar with the Fed’s thinking say it is looking into the creation of a mechanism to replace the clearing banks – the biggest of which are JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon – that serve as intermediaries between borrowers and lenders.

“The Fed is raising questions about whether the system really protects the interests of all participants,” says one person familiar with the Fed’s thinking.

In the repo markets, borrowers, such as banks, pledge collateral in return for overnight loans from lenders, such as money market funds.

The clearing banks stand between the parties, providing services such as valuing the collateral and advancing cash during the hours when trades are being made and unwound.

Fed officials fear this arrangement puts the clearing banks in a difficult position in a crisis. As the value of the securities falls, clearing banks have an obligation to demand more collateral to avoid losses. But in doing so, they could destabilise a rival.

“The clearing banks fear the positions of the investment banks are so large that a default would be difficult for them to manage,” the person familiar with the Fed’s thinking said.

“[Everyone] is thinking about how to remove conflicts of interest of the clearing banks and the investment banks so that the investment banks aren’t vulnerable to a sudden restriction of credit.”

The system’s complications were evident during Lehman’s collapse. JPMorgan, one of Lehman’s biggest trading partners, acted as its clearing bank in the repo market and – along with BoNY Mellon – served as the clearing bank for the New York Federal Reserve’s credit facility for securities ­companies.

Lawyers for the Lehman estate and for creditors have raised questions about whether JPMorgan acted too aggressively in seizing and marking down Lehman’s collateral.

Hedge funds have bought Lehman debt on the theory that the estate can claw back some of that collateral in court.

Citing confidentiality concerns, JPMorgan declined to comment.

The Fed hopes to have a new repo system in place by October, when its credit facility for securities companies is to close.

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