When the World Health Organization announced on Feb. 24 that it was time to prepare for a global pandemic, the stock market plummeted. Over the following week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 3,500 points, or 10%. In an attempt to contain the damage, the Federal Reserve on March 3 slashed the fed funds rate from 1.5% to 1.0%, in its first emergency rate move and biggest one-time cut since the 2008 financial crisis. But rather than reassuring investors, the move fueled another panic sell-off.
Exasperated commentators on CNBC wondered what the Fed was thinking. They said a half-point rate cut would not stop the spread of the coronavirus or fix the broken Chinese supply chains that are driving U.S. companies to the brink. A new report by corporate data analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet calculates that some 51,000 companies around the world have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. At least 5 million companies globally have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region, meaning that their suppliers get their supplies there; and 938 of the Fortune 1,000 companies have tier-one or tier-two suppliers there. Moreover, fully 80% of U.S. pharmaceuticals are made in China. A break in the supply chain can grind businesses to a halt.
So what was the Fed's reasoning for lowering the fed funds rate? According to some financial analysts, the fire it was trying to put out was actually in the repo market, where the Fed has lost control despite its emergency measures of the last six months. Repo market transactions come to $1 trillion to $2.2 trillion per day and keep our modern-day financial system afloat. But to follow the developments there, we first need a recap of the repo action since 2008.
Repos and the Fed
Before the 2008 banking crisis, banks in need of liquidity borrowed excess reserves from each other in the fed funds market. But after 2008, banks were reluctant to lend in that unsecured market, because they did not trust their counterparts to have the money to pay up. Banks desperate for funds could borrow at the Fed's discount window, but it carried a stigma. It signaled that the bank must be in distress, since other banks were not willing to lend to it at a reasonable rate. So banks turned instead to the private repo market, which is anonymous and is secured with collateral (Treasuries and other acceptable securities). Repo trades, although technically "sales and repurchases" of collateral, are in effect secured short-term loans, usually repayable the next day or in two weeks.
The risky element of these apparently secure trades is that the collateral itself may not be reliable, because it may be subject to more than one claim. For example, it may have been acquired in a swap with another party for securitized auto loans -- or other shaky assets -- a swap that will have to be reversed at maturity. As I explained in an earlier article, the private repo market has been invaded by hedge funds, which are highly leveraged and risky; so risk-averse money market funds and other institutional lenders have been withdrawing from that market. When the normally low repo interest rate shot up to 10% in September, the Fed therefore felt compelled to step in. The action it took was to restart its former practice of injecting money short-term through its own repo agreements with its primary dealers, which then lent to banks and other players. On March 3, however, even that central bank facility was oversubscribed, with far more demand for loans than the subscription limit.
The Fed's emergency rate cut was in response to that crisis. Lowering the fed funds rate by half a percentage point was supposed to relieve the pressure on the central bank's repo facility by encouraging banks to lend to each other. But the rate cut had virtually no effect, and the central bank's repo facility continued to be oversubscribed the next day and the following. As observed by Zero Hedge:
"This continuing liquidity crunch is bizarre, as it means that not only did the rate cut not unlock additional funding, it actually made the problem worse, and now banks and dealers are telegraphing that they need not only more repo buffer but likely an expansion of QE [quantitative easing]."
The Collateral Problem
As financial analyst George Gammon explains, however, the crunch in the private repo market is not actually due to a shortage of liquidity. Banks still have $1.5 trillion in excess reserves in their accounts with the Fed, stockpiled after multiple rounds of quantitative easing. The problem is in the collateral, which lenders no longer trust. Lowering the fed funds rate did not relieve the pressure on the Fed's repo facility for obvious reasons: Banks that are not willing to take the risk of lending to each other unsecured at 1.5% in the fed funds market are going to be even less willing to lend at 1%. They can earn that much just by leaving their excess reserves at the safe, secure Fed, drawing on the Interest on Excess Reserves it has been doling out ever since the 2008 crisis.
But surely the Fed knew that. So why lower the fed funds rate? Perhaps because it had to do something to maintain the façade of being in control, and lowering the interest rate was the most acceptable tool it had. The alternative would be another round of quantitative easing, but the Fed has so far denied entertaining that controversial alternative. Those protests aside, QE is probably next after the Fed's orthodox tools fail, as the Zero Hedge author notes.
The central bank has become the only game in town, and its hammer keeps missing the nail. A recession caused by a massive disruption in supply chains cannot be fixed through central-bank monetary easing alone. Monetary policy is a tool designed to deal with demand the amount of money competing for goods and services, driving prices up. To fix a supply-side problem, monetary policy needs to be combined with fiscal policy, which means Congress and the Fed need to work together. There are successful contemporary models for this, and the best are in China and Japan.
The Chinese Stock Market Has Held Its Ground
While U.S. markets were crashing, the Chinese stock market actually went up by 10% in February. How could that be? China is the country hardest hit by the disruptive COVID-19 virus, yet investors are evidently confident that it will prevail against the virus and market threats.