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Why markets can never be made truly safe

Why?

The process of collateral is typically tedious. The mortgage banker and repo trader, who arrange trillions of dollars in repurchase agreements for very short-term government bonds each day, is preoccupied with valuing assets and lending against them. This movement is called monetary pipes on purpose: It’s important, but it’s not hot. In addition, like standard plumbing, you are only informed of it when something goes wrong.

Presently is one of those times. Credit Suisse received a $54 billion loan from the Swiss National Bank on March 16 that was secured by the bank’s collateral. However, this loan was insufficient to save the 167-year-old company. On 19 Walk the US Central bank declared that it would reactivate everyday dollar trade lines with England, Canada, the euro region, Japan and Switzerland. Now, these economies’ central banks can lend their own currencies-backed dollars at a fixed exchange rate from the Fed to local financial institutions.

The market rarely moves much during normal times for assets that are thought to be low-risk and unlikely to change much in value. Common forms of collateral include property and bonds issued by the government. Stocks, corporate credit, and commodities are risky investments that are sometimes used. Numerous financial crises are rooted in both kinds of collateral.

Risks eventually emerge due to the perception of security. Lenders are said to feel more comfortable lending against assets that are more secure. Although what they are able to lend (and access the money) is not always a security, the assets themselves may occasionally be a security.

Financial panic can arise as a result of this conflict between risk and safety. In other instances, the issue is merely a miscalculation. In essence, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB)’s activities were leveraged bets on assets that bankers thought were solid: Treasury bonds and mortgages with long terms. The management of the company was of the opinion that it could borrow money—that is, the money it owed to bank depositors—safely against these dependable assets. The bank eventually failed as a result of the rapid decline in asset value that followed.

During the worldwide monetary emergency of 2007-09, trust in the impervious security of the US contract market prompted a blast in collateralized loaning. Even if mortgage-backed securities actually defaulted, the blowup wouldn’t have occurred. The mere change in the likelihood of default increased both the value of credit-default swaps and the liabilities of the companies that sold them, causing the financial institutions that sold a lot of swaps to become overwhelmed. A slow-burning series of financial crises that lasted more than a decade began in Japan in the early 1990s as a result of a collapse in land prices, which were the preferred collateral of domestic banks.

Not only do crises reveal where collateral has been mistakenly assumed to be safe, but also They also come up with new ideas that make collateral work better. Walter Bagehot, a former editor of this newspaper, criticized central banks for acting as lenders of last resort for private finance in response to the Panic of 1866, which resulted in the demise of Gurney and Co., Overend, a London wholesale bank. propagated the concept. institutions, in opposition to solid collateral. The daily swap lines, which were opened during the financial crisis and reopened in the early post-Covid-19 period, were recently reactivated by the Fed.

The Federal Reserve’s “Bank Expression Subsidizing System”, started after the breakdown of the SVB, is the main development in security strategy during the ongoing monetary flimsiness. The program’s generosity is novel and shocking. The 30-year Treasury bond that was issued in 2016 is currently worth approximately a quarter of its face value on the market; however, the Federal Reserve appraises it at face value if an organization pledges it as collateral. In the first week of the program, banks borrowed nearly $12 billion. They also borrowed a record $153 billion from the simple discount window of the central bank. Over this window, banks can now borrow without the usual cuts to their collateral.

The 150-year-old understanding of collateral may shift as a result of this program. Long-maturity bonds will benefit from a brand-new and extremely valuable backstop if investors anticipate that this feature, like swap lines, will become a standard component of the toolkit for preventing panic. When interest rates fall and the value of their bonds rises, financial institutions benefit; The Fed also steps in when bond prices fall and interest rates rise. In the long run, it’s possible that policymakers did the exact opposite in an effort to reduce the risk of sudden collapse and increase the safety of the financial system.

More from Buttonwood, our financial markets columnist: Why commodities shine in bearish times (9 March) The anti-ESG industry is taking investors by surprise (2 March) China on Wall Street Reservation is despite bullish talk (February 23) Also: How the Buttonwood Segment Got Its Name

© 2023, The Financial expert Paper Restricted. Reserved in all respects. Source: The Economist, licensed for publication. You can find original content at www.economist.com.

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