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What is ACTUALLY going on in the repo market?

Dissecting what’s going on in the repo markets

There are two sides to every deal. The repo markets are no different.

On one side of the deal, there are banks sitting on a large supply of cash. On the other side of the deal, there are the hedge funds that are sitting on a large supply of Treasuries.

Banks lend cash to hedge funds and hedge funds place Treasuries as collateral to banks. Hedge funds are able lever up trades they make on Treasuries.

How do they do it?

One increasingly popular hedge fund strategy involves buying US Treasuries while selling equivalent derivatives contracts such as interest rate futures, and then pocketing the difference. This is an arbitrage strategy that hedge funds use that would generally yield small profits.

The trade is not profitable on its own, given the close relationship and price between the two sides of the trade. Hedge funds use leverage via the repo markets to increase returns.

In some cases, hedge funds take those Treasury securities they own, and place it as collateral in the repo market for cash. Those hedge funds then use that cash to increase the size of their trade and buy more Treasuries, and place it as collateral in repo market for cash once again. This process can be repeated over and over to leverage off the potential returns of this trade.

The arbitrage strategy above was once popular amongst dealer banks themselves. However, higher capital charges have led to their displacement by hedge funds, due to hedge funds greater ability to take on the risk of this trade.

There has been a growing clout of hedge funds in repo market, including Millennium, Citadel, and Point 42, which are very active in repo market and are also the most highly leveraged multi-strategy funds in the world.

So what really happened in September 2019 in the repo market?

This brings us to the market on September 16, 2019. The secure overnight funding rate (SOFR) more than doubled in the intraday range jumped about 700 basis points (repo rates typically fluctuate in an intraday range of 10 to 20 basis points).

The repo rate reached as high as 10% that day.

sept repo

Some have speculated that end of quarter pressures put on banks to meet those regulatory guidelines caused the repo spike.

However, you have to consider that these overnight funding Market issues arose in mid-September. Not at the end of September when you would expect banks to hoard more cash.

What happened in August and September that could have caused issues in the repo Market that rippled through hedge funds?

We turn our attention to Treasuries and their performance in August and September.

From July 31st 2019 to August 15th 2019 TLT (20+ year Treasury Bond ETF) increased almost 13%. This was following the Fed’s first-rate cut after the tightening cycle that we saw ultimately in December 2018.

tlt prices

The Fed cut the rate 25 basis points and the Treasury market responded with an outsized move on Long-Term Treasuries in anticipation more easy money Fed policies becoming a mainstay. The Fed reiterated that the rate-cut was a “mid-cycle adjustment”, but that didn’t stop Long-Term Treasury prices from surging.

From September 5th to September 13th the same Long-Term Treasury bond prices dropped 7%. This could be due to the fact that investors realized they over adjusted the price of long-term treasuries and were now adjusting prices down to reflect new expectations.

I believe much of the volatility in the overnight repo markets has to do with these large moves in Treasuries, which increased volatility in any trade related to Treasuries, which in turn would have an effect on leveraged trades made by hedge funds on Treasuries. Banks may have recognized this, and grew reluctant to provide cash funding to this market for this and other regulator reasons.

There is still a lot of research and learning I need to do on this, but these are my thoughts on the repo markets as of January 20, 2020. Please share your insights in the comments below.


Why are some banks blaming regulations on the spike in the repo market?

Back on December 31, 2018 (before our September 2019 repo blowup) the rate on “general collateral” overnight repurchase agreements (repo rate) went from from 2.56 per cent to 6.125 per cent. This was the highest repo rate observed since 2001 and was the single largest percentage jump since at least 1998.

Some (including JP Morgan Chief Jaime Dimon) believe that various regulatory measures introduced in the wake of the Lehman crisis designed to make the financial system safer ends up putting stress on banks at quarter-end and moreso at year-end.

What regulations are said to cause stress in the repo markets?

The Basel III regulatory framework, calculates a tiered capital surcharge on global systemically important banks (GSIB) and is based on factors like their geographical sprawl, complexity and absolute size.

These charges are calculated from a snapshot at the end of the year which means that the world’s biggest banks (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America) are motivated to deflate the size of their overall balance sheet and trading book ahead of the end of every year, and then reflate them again afterwards.

This allows banks to essentially operate with less capital, boosting returns to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and dividends.

Some believed that the spike in repo rates in December 2018 suggests that big banks were wary of playing their usual role in facilitating markets this year feeding the turbulence in the repo markets,

In mid-December 2018, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision opened up a consultation on whether it should revise its quarterly assessment of balance sheets, noting that “heightened volatility in various segments of money markets and derivatives markets around key reference dates (eg quarter-end dates) has alerted the Basel Committee to potential regulatory arbitrage by banks”.

Some argued that regulators could also easily tweak the impact by calculating daily averages rather than using a snapshot, and move to a smoother sliding scale of capital ratios as opposed to the current tiered approach that encourages gaming.

Changes have not been made to these regulations however, and the repo market continues to wreak havoc on Fed policy as of January 2020.

What is a repurchase transaction (repo)?

Repo is a generic name for repurchase transactions.

In a repo transaction, one party sells an asset (such as Treasury Bonds) to another party at a set price. The seller commits to repurchase the same assets from the same party at some future date. If the seller defaults, the buyer is free to sell that asset to a third party to offset their loss.

Repos are a way for borrowers to raise short-term funding by agreeing to buy and sell securities over very short timeframes. In practice they function much like a collateralized or secured deposit, and are a vital part of the financial system.

Banks had become increasingly active in the repo market in recent years, lending out some of the surplus money they hold at the Federal Reserve to earn a little extra return in a safe and liquid way.

How is repo rate determined?

The difference between the price paid by the buyer at the start of the repo and the price received at the end is effectively the lending rate on the repo. This is known as the repo rate or repo interest.

Why are repos used?

Repo agreements can serve four primary functions to different institutions:

  1. They are a safe investment for those with extra cash laying around.
  2. Borrowing costs are cheap.
  3. Yields can be enhanced for institutions holding safe assets and by increase their leverage.
  4. They provide a means for short-selling and short-covering.

It’s safe because the cash is secured by collateral, which is generally safe assets. It also makes it easy for seller of repo to make money back by selling those secured assets if the buyer does default on their payments.

Yields are enhanced because a party could lend out a high demand asset to the market, and in return they receive cash for cheap which can be used for funding or reinvesting profits.

What is repo with an example?

When an institution or bank needs immediate cash but doesn’t want to sell their securities, they can enter into a repurchase agreement to supply their immediate cash needs.

A repurchase agreement is similar to a loan, and you are using securities as a collateral.

For example, say XYZ Bank Corp. needs to raise cash in order to meet some reserve requirement level. They have plenty of securities on hand, but not enough cash.

In this situation, XYZ Bank Corp. decided to enter into a repurchase agreement with ABC Bank Group.

ABC Bank Group will take on XYZ Bank Corp’s securities and will lend them cash overnight to ensure they are meeting those reserve requirements.

Once the term is up, XYZ Bank Corp will “repurchase” their securities from ABC Bank Group and their debts will consider to be settled.