For the past decade, the name of Zoltan Pozsar has been among the most admired and respected on Wall Street: not only did the Hungarian lay the groundwork for our current understanding of the deposit-free shadow banking system – which has the often opaque and painfully complex short-term dollar funding and repo markets – at its core…
… but he was also instrumental during his tenure at both the US Treasury and the New York Fed in laying the foundations of the modern repo market, orchestrating the response to the global financial crisis and the ensuing policy debate (as virtually nobody at the Fed knew more about repo at the time than Pozsar), serving as point person on market developments for Fed, Treasury and White House officials throughout the crisis (yes, Kashkari was just the figurehead); playing the key role in building the TALF to backstop the ABS market, and advising the former head of the Fed’s Markets Desk, Brian Sack, on just how the NY Fed should implement its various market interventions without disrupting and breaking the most important market of all: the multi-trillion repo market.
In short, when Pozsar speaks (or as the case may be, writes), people listen (and read).
And since Pozsar moved from the public sector to Credit Suisse in February 2015 to write his market moving (at least for those who can understand it) periodical, “Global Money Notes”, it has been relatively easy to keep track of his thoughts and observations on the repo market as they change over time.
Which brings us to his latest Global Money Notes, #26, published overnight, and in which Pozsar delivers his scathing assessment of the Fed’s latest intervention to stabilize repo markets since the September 16 repocalypse, that sent overnight repo rates as high as 10% in what was previously seen as an impossible event. Of course, as we saw three months ago, not only was the event possible, but it led to a shockwave of confusion as to what caused it, prompting even the BIS to chime in over the weekend with a fascinating theory, discussed previously, that hedge funds were among the causes for the repo fireworks as they scrambled to procure funding to prevent their massively levered relative value trades in which they bought TSYs and sold ‘equivalent’ derivatives contracts, from collapsing.
While Pozsar does not focus as much on the causes of the repocalypse, having previously covered them in depth in his prior Money Notes (and he would know: as noted above, Pozsar is the de facto architect of the modern US repo system), what he does do in his latest note, titled ominously “Countdown to QE4” is explain why the Fed’s interventions to date have failed to reverse the underlying plumbing issues in the banking system, manifesting themselves in a dramatic increase in Treasurys at the biggest US bank, JPMorgan…
… offset by a decline in reserves, i.e. cash…
… at the largest US banks, something we addressed previously when we discussed how JPMorgan gamed the financial system to trigger “NOT QE”, and a topic that Bloomberg touches on overnight in “Repo Firepower Reduced by Falling Cash Levels at Big U.S. Banks.”
As Pozsar cautions, the core problem at the heart of the repo blockage is that as banks shifted from owning reserves to collateral (mostly Treasuries), for reasons we will address shortly, large U.S. banks like J.P. Morgan that are central to year-end flows spent some $350 billion of excess reserves on collateral since the beginning of the Fed’s balance sheet taper, leaving banks (and especially JPMorgan) dangerously low on reserves.
And while one can debate why banks shifted away from reserves to “collateral”, Pozsar has a simple theory: “dealers and banks loaded up on collateral as a trade – a trade they were supposed to be taken out of by eventual coupon purchases by the Fed.” In other words, here is a former Fed official admitting that banks were purchasing Treasuries as nothing more than a QE frontrunning ploy, something which the Fed has previously sworn was never the intention behind QE. After all, if it emerges that the Fed is essentially facilitating taxpayer-funded and perfectly legal frontrunning, making bank execs even richer in the process, the US central bank would have even fewer fans. And yet, here is arguably the most respected ex-Fed staffer explaining that one of the core roles of QE is just that.
Alas, here a problem emerged, because “the Fed never did that, and for the first time we’re heading into a year-end turn without any excess reserves.”
Indeed, instead of buying coupon bonds as Dealers have been quietly demanding behind close doors, a process which would allow them to sterilize their massive Treasury holdings, the Fed announced in October it would only buy T-Bills in order to not freak out the market that it is officially launching QE 4 (as a reminder, the only semantic distinction between whether the Fed is doing QE or not doing QE is whether it is soaking up duration; the Fed’s argument is that since Bills don’t have duration, it’s not QE. However once Powell starts buying 2Y, 3Y, 5Y and so on Treasuriess, the facade cracks and the Fed will have no more defense that what it is doing is precisely QE 4). And by buying Bills, it is not allowing commercial banks to exchange their coupon holdings for reserves (cash), but merely results in recirculation of sterilized Bill purchases.