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34. Was a ‘run on repo’ the cause of the financial crisis in 2007?
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This term was coined by two academics, Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick of Harvard University, in a paper published in 2010, which has had a major influence on the regulatory debate on the pro-cyclicality of haircuts, spawning the idea of a minimum mandatory haircut.* Unfortunately, there are fundamental flaws in the calibration of their model.

Gorton and Metrick argue that the financial crisis of 2007-08 was akin to a traditional banking panic but was precipitated by a run on the repo market, which they describe as being part of the “securitised banking” market. Securitised banking is defined as the business of packaging and re-selling loans, with repo as the source of funding. Gorton and Metrick propose that deepening haircuts reduced the value of collateral to such an extent that it forced massive deleveraging in the financial system. Firms from which repo funding was progressively withdrawn by the imposition of higher and higher haircuts were forced to deleverage by selling assets. The resulting fire sales amplified and aggravated the crisis. The importance attached to Gorton and Metrick derives in large part from the empirical evidence they employ in the form of a set of data series on collateral haircuts taken on 10 classes of structured securities by a large but anonymous US broker-dealer between 2007 and 2009.

The main shortcoming with Gorton and Metrick’s data is that it only includes structured securities (ABS, RMBS, CMBS, CLO and CDO). Gorton and Metrick assume that the collateral used in the US repo market is “very often” securitized bonds. They offer no data on US Treasuries and Agencies, which constitute the largest pool of repo collateral in the US, and ignore evidence from the tri-party market, which may have accounted for almost two-thirds of outstanding US repo. This is significant because, although the US Task Force on Tri-Party Repo Infrastructure (2009) concluded that “tri-party repo arrangements were at the center of the liquidity pressures faced by securities firms at the height of the financial crisis”, they concluded that the available data suggested that margins in the tri-party repo market did not increase much during the crisis, if at all. They observed that, “It appears that some tri-party repo investors prefer to stop financing a dealer rather than increase margins to protect themselves”. This point was also made by the BIS Committee on the Global Financial System (CGFS) Study Group. Gorton and Metrick ignore the reduction or closing of credit limits and the shortening of lending. There is also no recognition of the evaporation of unsecured credit. They are therefore simply incorrect to attribute the entire deleveraging of the US financial system and loss of liquidity in the US money market to the dynamics of the repo market in the form of deepening haircuts.

While Gorton and Metrick’s analysis may have overestimated the impact of haircuts/initial margins in the US market, it says even less about the European repo market, which has a very different structure to the US market.
  • Some 80% of collateral in the European repo market is government securities. Structured securities are a small component. Most structured securities in the European market are managed as tri-party repos. ICMA data suggests such collateral accounts for no more than 10% of tri-party repo, which itself is about 10% of the wider European repo market.
  • The US market is largely overnight, whereas in Europe, only 18.3% of outstanding contracts were one-day maturities in June 2007 (ICMA survey). In a market dominated by one-day maturities, margin maintenance is redundant. Valuation changes will be reflected entirely in adjustments to haircuts/initial margins, which also factor in forward-looking risks, making for potentially more abrupt changes in collateral value than margin calls. In a market like Europe, the extended maturity distribution means margin maintenance is more significant and will mute the impact of margin calls.
It is therefore a serious mistake to extrapolate certain events in one part of US credit repo into the European repo market. This can be demonstrated by quantifying the impact of changes in haircuts/initial margins in the European market. In a paper published by the ICMA in February 2012, an estimate was made of the likely impact over 2007-09 of changes in haircuts/initial margins in the European repo market using the results of the ICMA’s semi-annual European repo market survey for June 2007 and  June 2009, and the CGFS Study Group survey of haircuts.** Even on the basis of conservative assumptions, the impact on the value of collateral of changes in haircuts/initial margins is less than 3%, which is insignificant in terms of the scale of deleveraging seen over the same period (eg the headline totals of the ICMA survey dropped by 28.1%, from a peak of EUR 6,775 billion in June 2007 to EUR 4,868 billion in June 2009, and the maximum fall was 31.6% to December 2008). Although the estimations are necessarily approximate, the difference is of an order of magnitude, which seriously calls into question haircut spiral models such as Gorton and Metrick’s as a feasible explanation for the market crisis of 2007-09.

These doubts have been reinforced by a study by Krishnamurthy, Nagel and Orlov, who make the point that “much of the discussion of the repo market has run ahead of our measurement of the repo market.”*** They derived a new data set from regulatory and industry sources on investment in the US repo market by money market mutual funds and securities lenders cash reinvestment desks. These institutions are estimated to have provided some two-thirds of the cash borrowed by shadow banks in the US repo market in 2007. Krishnamurthy et al calculated that only some 3% of non-Agency MBS and ABS were financed by repo bought by money market mutual funds and securities lenders. Most of their repo collateral was US Treasuries or Agencies (80% for money market mutual funds and 65% for securities lenders). While there was a deterioration in repo terms (rates, maturities and haircuts) for structured security collateral, there was no contraction in purchases of repo against Treasuries and Agencies. Krishnamurthy et al also observed no increase in haircuts on Treasury and Agency collateral. Moreover, in the tri-party market, they measured only modest increases in haircuts for structured securities and corporate bonds, from 3-4% in 2007 to 5-7% in 2009, compared to the changes in Gorton and Metrick’s data for structured securities in the bilateral repo market, which showed haircuts often rising from 0% to in excess of 50%. The evidence is once again that, rather than increasing haircuts, market users initially responded to the crisis by reducing or withdrawing credit lines, shortening the terms for which they were willing to lend and narrowing the range of eligible collateral. The conclusion is that repo was not key to the funding of shadow banking and had a modest impact on changes in aggregate funding conditions.

*Gorton, Gary, & Andrew Metrick, Securitized Banking and the Run on Repo (9 November 2010).

**Haircuts and initial margins in the repo market, ICMA (8 February 2012).

***Krishnamurthy, Arvind, Stefan Nagel and Dmitry Orlov, Sizing Up Repo, Stanford University (November 2011).

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