Friday, March 14, 2008

Wall Street, There's a Place You Can Go

I said, Wall Street, when you're short on your dough...

Earlier this week, the Fed announced a new $200 billion program called the Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF). This will allow investment banks to borrow US Treasury securities by putting up certain assets including some mortgage-backed securities as collateral. The NY Times reported:
The Federal Reserve, in effect, is trying to ease an acute credit squeeze by agreeing to hold large volumes of mortgage-backed bonds that Wall Street firms are struggling to sell and providing them with either cash or Treasury securities that they can immediately convert to cash.

Fed officials are increasingly convinced that the United States is sliding into a recession, and they worry that the deepening credit squeeze will aggravate the problem by making it even harder for consumers and businesses to borrow money for houses, new equipment or new factories.

The Fed’s hope is to relieve some of the pressure on institutions to sell at fire-sale prices, easing the strains on economic activity and making the credit markets feel more comfortable in buying mortgage bonds again.

The Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein puts the Fed's action in context:

[T]he real problem began in late February, as several of Wall Street's biggest investment banks prepared to close their books for the quarter and realized they were looking not only at big declines in profit from issuance of new stocks and bonds and fees from mergers and acquisitions, but also another round of write-offs in the value of their holdings. In response, the banks began to hunker down, instructing their trading desks to raise margin requirements for hedge funds and other customers, requiring them, in effect, to post more collateral on their heavy borrowings.

Thus began a chain reaction in which hedge funds began selling what they could -- largely mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae -- to raise the cash to meet their new margin calls. That wave of forced selling drove down the price of those bonds, which prompted more margin calls and more forced selling. By the end of last week, the interest rate spread on those securities -- the difference between their yield and that of risk-free U.S. Treasury bonds -- had jumped four, five, even 10 times the normal rate.

(Here is an explanation of "margin call").

A central bank is sometimes called upon to act as a "lender of last resort" to banks in crisis. In an age where loans are widely "securitized" - that is, instead of sitting as an asset on a bank's balance sheet, loans are sold on a market (often in a bundle like a mortgage-backed security which entitles the holders to the payments from the underlying mortgage loans) - Willem Buiter has argued that the central bank needs to be a "market maker of last resort." A market maker acts as both a buyer and a seller (not unlike a used car lot), and thereby ensures "liquidity" - that assets can readily be sold. Buiter sees the TSLF as a sign that the Fed is stepping up to this task (albeit in a somewhat indirect fashion):

The old Lender of Last Resort (LoLR) model of providing funding liquidity to solvent but illiquid banks, at a penalty rate and against collateral that would be good in normal times but may have become impaired in disorderly market conditions, may be appropriate in a relationships-based financial system or traditional banking system. It is not capable of dealing with market illiquidity - the kind of liquidity problem likely to arise in a transactions-based model of financial capitalism, that is, a system in which a large share of intermediation occurs through the capital markets rather than through conventional ‘originate and hold’ banks.

In a transactions-based financial system, the Market Maker of Last Resort function complements or even substitutes for the Lender of Last Resort function as the instrument of choice for pursuing financial stability. Rather than disguising the fact that the Fed has woken up to the fact that the world has changed and that central banks have to accept an expanded range of eligible collateral from an expanded range of counterparties when key financial market seize up, the Fed should advertise the fact. They are doing the right thing.

No bank does it all by itself.
I said, Wall Street, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the T.S.L.F.
I'm sure they can help you today.

Update: Paul Krugman believes it probably won't work.

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