By Ellen Brown
When the World Health Organization announced on Feb. 24 that it was time to prepare for a global pandemic, the stock market plummeted. Over the following week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 3,500 points, or 10%. In an attempt to contain the damage, the Federal Reserve on March 3 slashed the fed funds rate from 1.5% to 1.0%, in its first emergency rate move and biggest one-time cut since the 2008 financial crisis. But rather than reassuring investors, the move fueled another panic sell-off.
Exasperated commentators on CNBC wondered what the Fed was thinking. They said a half-point rate cut would not stop the spread of the coronavirus or fix the broken Chinese supply chains that are driving U.S. companies to the brink. A new report by corporate data analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet calculates that some 51,000 companies around the world have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. At least 5 million companies globally have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region, meaning that their suppliers get their supplies there; and 938 of the Fortune 1,000 companies have tier-one or tier-two suppliers there. Moreover, fully 80% of U.S. pharmaceuticals are made in China. A break in the supply chain can grind businesses to a halt.
So what was the Fed’s reasoning for lowering the fed funds rate? According to some financial analysts, the fire it was trying to put out was actually in the repo market, where the Fed has lost control despite its emergency measures of the last six months. Repo market transactions come to $1 trillion to $2.2 trillion per day and keep our modern-day financial system afloat. But to follow the developments there, we first need a recap of the repo action since 2008.
Repos and the Fed
Before the 2008 banking crisis, banks in need of liquidity borrowed excess reserves from each other in the fed funds market. But after 2008, banks were reluctant to lend in that unsecured market, because they did not trust their counterparts to have the money to pay up. Banks desperate for funds could borrow at the Fed’s discount window, but it carried a stigma. It signaled that the bank must be in distress, since other banks were not willing to lend to it at a reasonable rate. So banks turned instead to the private repo market, which is anonymous and is secured with collateral (Treasuries and other acceptable securities). Repo trades, although technically “sales and repurchases” of collateral, are in effect secured short-term loans, usually repayable the next day or in two weeks.
This article was first posted on Truthdig.com. Ellen Brown chairs the Public Banking Institute and has written thirteen books, including her latest, Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age. She also co-hosts a radio program on PRN.FM called “It’s Our Money.” Her 300+ blog articles are posted at EllenBrown.com.