Why is Zero Hedge claiming the Fed is intervening in equities markets?

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I just came across a post on Zero Hedge called “An Overview Of The Fed’s Intervention In Equity Markets Via The Primary Dealer Credit Facility.” Now, that’s a mouthful. As far as I can discern, the post’s purpose is to expose alleged equities market manipulation by the Federal Reserve. However, I found the argument rather conspiratorial. And despite claims of an alleged smoking gun, there is no evidence in the post that that Federal Reserve is manipulating anything except interest rates. And the Fed made clear that that was what it intended to do.

Let me break down the argument made by Zero Hedge’s Tyler Durden and give a few remarks of my own on how I read the situation.

The junking of the Fed’s balance sheet

In March 2008, the Federal Reserve established the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF) to provide liquidity to the financial sector after Bear Stearns collapsed. Overnight funding had become a key source of liquidity for banks looking for cheap money (short-term rates are lower than long-term rates).

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But when crisis hit, the liquidity in overnight interbank markets dried up leading to collapse at Northern Rock in October 2007 and then Bear Stearns in March 2008, institutions which were recklessly overexposed to overnight funding. This was a market failure. The Federal Reserve, therefore, stepped forward, effectively taking the entire wholesale banking market onto its balance sheet. That is what all of the Fed’s liquidity provisions are about.

The problem most of us have with this and similar facilities is the PDCF’s collateral terms. In the past the Fed accepted treasuries. Now it was accepting a lot more (including some so-called toxic assets):

The PDCF will provide overnight funding to primary dealers in exchange for a specified range of collateral, including all collateral eligible for tri-party repurchase agreements arranged by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as well as all investment-grade corporate securities, municipal securities, mortgage-backed securities and asset-backed securities for which a price is available.

By April 2008, when David Einhorn questioned Lehman’s earnings report, people were asking if they were going the way of Bear Stearns (see my June 2008 post “Is Lehman the next Bear Stearns?”). When Lehman did collapse, acceptable collateral expanded. In some instances it included equities as well. The Fed’s press release expanding collateral said:

The collateral eligible to be pledged at the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF) has been broadened to closely match the types of collateral that can be pledged in the tri-party repo systems of the two major clearing banks. Previously, PDCF collateral had been limited to investment-grade debt securities. The collateral for the Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF) also has been expanded; eligible collateral for Schedule 2 auctions will now include all investment-grade debt securities. Previously, only Treasury securities, agency securities, and AAA-rated mortgage-backed and asset-backed securities could be pledged.

You’ll notice nowhere in the press release does one see the term equities. This is obviously by design because the Fed was under fire for bloating its balance sheet with junk. This process – what I call qualitative easing – was meant to be opaque.

With the panic now over, things have settled down and these facilities are likely to end. The Fed is issuing its own research to give intellectual cover to these activities. But, outrage remains nonetheless. The Fed’s own Charles Plosser, the President of the Philadelphia Fed, has said he wants to see qualitative easing end sooner rather than later. And Bloomberg News is suing the Federal Reserve under the Freedom of Information Act to reveal who it is lending money to against this dubious collateral.

That sums things up in a nutshell.  The key to note here is that the PDCF is an overnight lending facility, the TSLF is a 28-day lending facility and another program, the TALF, is a third longer-term lending facility I haven’t discussed. (See more on the TALF here and why it is a bailout).

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Tyler Durden’s beef: the Plunge Protection Team

Tyler’s history of events in his post is largely consistent with what I just presented. Where his history diverges from mine is when he goes into the section headed “Implications,” saying “the Federal Reserve has now managed to singlehandedly take over the entire capital market.” At some point, he goes as far as to say:

The bolded text is all you need to know to find the smoking gun for any and all allegations of "plunge protection" or however one wishes to frame the invisible market bid.

Those are pretty strong words and I believe these claims are unsubstantiated in the post.  Why not leave it at the lesser claim that the Federal Reserve is running a loose monetary policy that encourages excessive risk – something that, while subject to interpretation, is a valid criticism?

Posts like this are exactly why I expressed concern when Bloomberg fecklessly expunged a Tyler Durden interview in August amid media hoopla over his identity:

Zero Hedge is a site replete with copious information on finance and the economy and is often a necessary voice of scepticism in the blogosphere that keeps the mainstream media honest.  We need outlets like that.  And Tyler was on Bloomberg Radio in the first place because he has something to say that is different, interesting and adds value. However, the hyperbole, tone, anonymity and confusion as to which writer is using which pseudonym at Zero Hedge has long become a liability which reduces the credibility of the site.

The claim of equity market manipulation strikes me as hyperbole.  There is no smoking gun whatsoever. It is a theory that I don’t buy into and that is not substantiated by the evidence in the post. Otherwise, Tyler and I are on exactly the same page.

I do have a few other points of disagreement.

  • Why talk about the Primary Dealer Credit Facility when it is an overnight facility? The haircut is usually reset daily. How much manipulating can the Federal Reserve really do with an overnight facility? As I see it, the real problem with the Fed’s balance sheet is the loans under longer-term facilities like the TALF.
  • What about the haircut on other asset classes, namely investment-grade and non-investment grade asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations. Forget about the plunge protection team conspiracy. To my mind, this is the real story here. The Fed says it accepts only securities “for which a price is available” as collateral. Is that really true? I am sceptical, one reason I would like to see who is getting these loans and what kind of collateral they are using.

Somehow you get the feeling there is a reason these facilities are still around, namely that some institutions need them because their capital base is so impaired right now that they would fail without the Fed taking those toxic assets off their hands.

In the end, Charles Plosser, Tyler Durden and I all agree: the Fed needs to end these programs as soon as possible.

Expect more on this issue soon via Marshall Auerback.

Update: This phrase, "PDCF usage declined, reaching zero in mid-May 2009," suggests the PDCF is not being used to goose equities. The quote comes from page seven of the following PDF document at the New York Fed from August: "The Federal Reserve’s Primary Dealer Credit Facility."

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