Rate Watch #1099 – The Fed and the Liquidity Crisis.
August 28, 2017
by Dick Lepre
The Fed and the Liquidity Crisis
People generally are ill-informed about what happened after the Lehman bankruptcy and the mortgage mess. This poor information consists of two things 1) how much the government actually lost on TARP and 2) the fact that TARP was not the important this. What was important was the swift reactions of the Fed to a liquidity crisis.
Between February 2007 when HSBC was the first large bank to make a large write-off ($10.5 billion) and August 2008 banks worldwide had written off $500 billion. Banks had a dual problem. One was a capital problem but the persistent one was a liquidity problem. The capital problem was partially fixed by raising more capital and diluting the value of equity position of banks. The liquidity problem was more nefarious. Banks became suspicious of one another and their normal flow of interbank lending stopped. When interbank lending dries up lending dries up.
Liquidity implies that an asset can be sold quickly without affecting the price. The underlying reality was that if banks started to sell their stakes in mortgages the prices would be driven constantly down creating cascading losses as the value of their stakes deteriorated and their new worth decreased.
The salient point was this: banks needed an extended period of time to get rid of their lousy assets of pools of bad mortgages. This required two things: 1) relaxation of accounting rules to not force banks to genuinely mark these assets to market 2) a massive injection of liquidity on a scale never before seen.
What follows are brief synopses of the various Fed created programs to provide liquidity.
One solution was the Term Auction Facility. The TAF was not merely a Federal Reserve thing. It was the coordinated effort of the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, Bank of Canada, and the Swiss National Bank.
Under the Term Auction Facility program, the Federal Reserve auctioned term funds to depository institutions by taking of a larger set of assets as collateral that the Fed would normally take at its discount window. Cash was provided with a broader set of assets as collateral.
I am going to sidetrack here with comments on some of what I have read about this. The Fed was not giving money to anyone. It was lending money. All of these loans were secured. The Fed lost zero. In fact it made money. It most certainly took risks because it lowered the standard of the collateral it took.
Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF)
Some of the entities damages by the liquidity crisis were primary dealers. There are currently 18 primary dealers. These are the entities which the Treasury department uses to wholesale Treasury auctions. One of the most important elements of this is what is called a "Triparty Repurchase Agreement." A repurchase agreement (repo) is the sale of securities and the agreement by the seller to repurchase those securities for a given price on a given date. These are Wall Street versions of a pawn shop. A Triparty Repurchase Agreement is a repo where there is a third part which acts as custodian for the securities. With these entities damaged and lacking the trust of counterparties, the Fed established PDCF as an overnight loan facility for primary dealers. It was to primary dealers what the Fed window is to member banks. The dealers of immediate concern were Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch. Details of all of the PDCF transactions are in this spreadsheet.
The facility was announced on March 16, 2008, and was closed on February 1, 2010. All loans were repaid with interest.
It should also be noted that the big Wall Street investments banks were subsequently either acquired by commercial banks or redefined themselves to become bank holding companies and can now borrow from the Fed window.
Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF)
This was another type of support for primary dealers and loaned liquid Treasury securities with less than totally liquid securities as collateral. These "less than totally liquid securities" were agency MBS, CMO and bonds with ratings from AAA to Baa/BBB. The TSLF was announced on March 11, 2008 and closed on February 1, 2010. All securities loans made under the facility were repaid in full, with interest.
Agency Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) Purchase Program
This was the facility for purchasing residential mortgages. This helped Main Street not Wall Street. These was FNMA, FHLMC and GNMA (FHA and VA) mortgages. The Fed purchased these mortgages in bulk from primary dealers. Most of these remain owned by the Fed and each transaction has its own CUSIP number. In addition to the interest received there has been much principal repayment as homes are sold and as those Fed owned mortgages were refinanced at lower rates this year. Understand that the Fed paid zero for the money. It created these fund out of thin air. All of the interest received (less what is paid to the servicer) is profit. The notion that this was a dramatic increase in money supply which could create asset bubbles especially with low interest rates is valid. Asset bubbles are a collateral effect.
Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF)
Commercial paper is short-term (<270 days) borrowing usually by businesses and governments to fund short-term operating expenses. Some commercial paper is backed with assets and some is unsecuritized. This is a critical source of funding for many businesses. While a business can issue commercial paper itself, most commercial paper is sold to broker-dealers (investment banks and bank holding companies) and those entities find retail buyers for this paper. To a large extent is was money market mutual funds which provided the cash for commercial paper. On September 16, 2008, consequent to the Lehman BK investors started moving money out of money market mutual funds and these funds had to liquidate assets at a bad time. On that day the Reserve Primary Fund, the oldest money fund in existence, and a holder of $785 million in Lehman Brothers commercial paper "broke the buck" meaning that every dollar invested there was worth less than $1.00. Before that day, in the entire 37 year history of money market funds this had only happened twice. The notion that other than cash and bank deposits money market funds were the safest investments had gotten a serious jolt.
When the liquidity crisis happened the money market funds were reluctant to purchase commercial paper. We were facing a serious recession and the sources of credit to many businesses disappeared almost overnight.
The Federal Reserve created the CPFF and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York provided three-month loans to the CPFF LLC, a specially created limited liability company (LLC) that used the funds to purchase commercial paper directly from eligible issuers.
The facility was announced on October 7, 2008, began purchases of commercial paper on October 27, 2008, and was closed on February 1, 2010. Net portfolio holdings of the CPFF LLC peaked at $351.4 billion on 1/23/2009. The CPFF LLC was dissolved on August 30, 2010. All loans that were made to the CPFF LLC were repaid in full.
Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF)
This addressed asset based securities (ABS). Asset based securities are what banks, for example, use to finance auto loans, credit card debt and student loans. When the liquidity crisis happened investors were reluctant to purchase ABS. While TALF lending was done through intermediaries the people who benefited were everyone who wanted an auto loan, a credit card, a student loan or a small business loan. TALF loans were collateralized by assets. The value of the assets always exceeded the value of the loan. This helped Main Street not Wall Street.
The facility was announced on November 25, 2008, and began lending operations in March 2009. TALF lending was authorized through June 30, 2010. The only info I can find says that 60% of the loans were paid off this September and that "All loans that have not been repaid in full early are current in their payments of principal and interest and no collateral has been surrendered in lieu of repayment."
Central Bank Liquidity Swap Lines
These are foreign exchange swaps. Two types were enabled one for foreign banks wanting to temporarily exchange their currency for U.S. dollars and one for providing liquidity for foreign currency assets of U.S. banks. The later were never activated. Since I am bad at explaining FOREX in my down-to-earth fashion I will merely plagiarize the Fed.
"To address severe strains in global short-term dollar funding markets, the Federal Reserve established temporary central bank liquidity swap lines (also referred to as reciprocal currency arrangements) with a number of foreign central banks. Foreign central banks then could draw on those lines to provide dollar liquidity to institutions in their jurisdictions. In the swap transactions, the Federal Reserve deals only with the foreign central bank. The transaction is structured so that the Federal Reserve does not bear any foreign exchange risk. In May 2010, dollar swap lines were reestablished with certain foreign central banks because of the reemergence of strains in dollar funding markets.
The FOMC authorized temporary dollar liquidity swap arrangements with 14 foreign central banks between December 12, 2007, and October 29, 2008. The arrangements expired on February 1, 2010. All transactions were executed in full, in accordance with the terms of the swap arrangements.
In May 2010, in response to the reemergence of strains in short-term dollar funding markets abroad, the FOMC re-authorized dollar liquidity swap lines with five foreign central banks through January 2011."
Since this was announced I have read countless criticisms of the Fed's actions as detailed in this report. The fact is this: the Fed acted independently in most of these cases. It acted under authority granted to it by of Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, which permitted the Board, in unusual and exigent circumstances, to authorize Reserve Banks to extend credit to individuals, partnerships, and corporations. If these were not unusual and exigent circumstances then I am not sure what constitutes such.
The Fed did not give money away to any entity. It reacted in a most dramatic way to a massive liquidity crisis which, if not immediately addressed, could have created a worldwide depression. The Fed provided liquidity for funding mortgages, credit card debt, student loans and auto loans. As far as I can tell the only long term loans are the mortgages purchased by the Fed from FHLMC, FNMA and GNMA. There are still positions in TALF loans which are also consumer oriented. The Fed helped Main Street as well as Wall Street. All of the loans made to increase liquidity to commercial banks and investment banks are repaid.
The Fed acted boldly and may someday be judged to have averted a worldwide economic catastrophe and the end of 2009 transferred more than $45+ billion in profit to Treasury. The discussion about whether the Fed should have the dual mandate of controlling inflation and keeping unemployment low misses the fact that real mandate of the Fed is preservation of the banking system. The elements of the dual mandate are secondary and we do not normally think about the Fed's first purpose because things such as this liquidity crisis do not occur often.
The Fed gets criticized by folks of all political beliefs. To me criticizing the Fed is like criticizing the fire department. Building owners complain that they do water damage and the arson squad complains that they destroy evidence. Like the fire department, as the Fed puts out economic fires it does create collateral damage. That collateral damage takes the form of asset bubbles created by low interest rates and large increases in money supply. The Fed quite possibly averted a major worldwide depression and it so doing made enough money that is gave Treasury $45 billion in 2009. So before anyone bitches about the Fed they should perhaps think about that.
The liquidity crisis unfolded with such speed that there was no time for any entity other than the Fed and other central banks to act. The Fed needed to act without proximate input from politicians. Congress gave the Fed its agenda. Listening to people in Congress and comedians on TV question Bernanke was, to me, laughable. With these programs the Fed helped Main Street and Wall Street. When it helped Main Street it also helped Wall Street. When it helped Wall Street it also helped Main Street. The notion that Wall Street and Main Street have opposing interests is one of the dumbest fallacies to come from all the discussion about what the Fed did.