What Is a Repurchase Agreement?
A repurchase agreement (repo) is a form of short-term borrowing for dealers in government securities. In the case of a repo, a dealer sells government securities to investors, usually on an overnight basis, and buys them back the following day at a slightly higher price. That small difference in price is the implicit overnight interest rate. Repos are typically used to raise short-term capital. They are also a common tool of central bank open market operations.
For the party selling the security and agreeing to repurchase it in the future, it is a repo; for the party on the other end of the transaction, buying the security and agreeing to sell in the future, it is a reverse repurchase agreement.
- A repurchase agreement, or "repo," is a short-term agreement to sell securities in order to buy them back at a slightly higher price.
- The one selling the repo is effectively borrowing and the other party is lending, since the lender is credited the implicit interest in the difference in prices from initiation to repurchase.
- Repos and reverse repos are thus used for short-term borrowing and lending, often with a tenor of overnight to 48 hours.
- The implicit interest rate on these agreements is known as the repo rate, a proxy for the overnight risk-free rate.
Understanding Repurchase Agreements
Repurchase agreements are generally considered safe investments because the security in question functions as collateral, which is why most agreements involve U.S. Treasury bonds. Classified as a money-market instrument, a repurchase agreement functions in effect as a short-term, collateral-backed, interest-bearing loan. The buyer acts as a short-term lender, while the seller acts as a short-term borrower. The securities being sold are the collateral. Thus the goals of both parties, secured funding and liquidity, are met.
Repurchase agreements can take place between a variety of parties. The Federal Reserve enters into repurchase agreements to regulate the money supply and bank reserves. Individuals normally use these agreements to finance the purchase of debt securities or other investments. Repurchase agreements are strictly short-term investments, and their maturity period is called the "rate," the "term," or the "tenor."
Despite the similarities to collateralized loans, repos are actual purchases. However, since the buyer only has temporary ownership of the security, these agreements are often treated as loans for tax and accounting purposes. In the case of bankruptcy, in most cases, repo investors can sell their collateral. This is another distinction between repo and collateralized loans; in the case of most collateralized loans, bankrupt investors would be subject to an automatic stay.
Term vs. Open Repurchase Agreements
The major difference between a term and an open repo lies in the amount of time between the sale and the repurchase of the securities.
Repos that have a specified maturity date (usually the following day or week) are term repurchase agreements. A dealer sells securities to a counterparty with the agreement that they will buy them back at a higher price on a specific date. In this agreement, the counterparty gets the use of the securities for the term of the transaction, and will earn interest stated as the difference between the initial sale price and the buyback price. The interest rate is fixed, and interest will be paid at maturity by the dealer. A term repo is used to invest cash or finance assets when the parties know how long they will need to do so.
An open repurchase agreement (also known as on-demand repo) works the same way as a term repo except that the dealer and the counterparty agree to the transaction without setting the maturity date. Rather, the trade can be terminated by either party by giving notice to the other party prior to an agreed-upon daily deadline. If an open repo is not terminated, it automatically rolls over each day. Interest is paid monthly, and the interest rate is periodically repriced by mutual agreement.
The interest rate on an open repo is generally close to the federal funds rate. An open repo is used to invest cash or finance assets when the parties do not know how long they will need to do so. But nearly all open agreements conclude within one or two years.
The Significance of the Tenor
Repos with longer tenors are usually considered higher risk. During a longer tenor, more factors can affect repurchaser creditworthiness, and interest rate fluctuations are more likely to have an impact on the value of the repurchased asset.
It's similar to the factors that affect bond interest rates. In normal credit market conditions, a longer-duration bond yields higher interest. Long-term bond purchases are bets that interest rates will not rise substantially during the life of the bond. Over a longer duration, it is more likely that a tail event will occur, driving interest rates above forecasted ranges. If there is a period of high inflation, the interest paid on bonds preceding that period will be worth less in real terms.
This same principle applies to repos. The longer the term of the repo, the more likely that the value of the collateral securities will fluctuate prior to the repurchase, and business activities will affect the repurchaser's ability to fulfill the contract. In fact, counterparty credit risk is the primary risk involved in repos.
As with any loan, the creditor bears the risk that the debtor will be unable to repay the principal. Repos function as collateralized debt, which reduces the total risk. And because the repo price exceeds the value of collateral, these agreements remain mutually beneficial to buyers and sellers.
Types of Repurchase Agreements
There are three main types of repurchase agreements:
- The most common type is a third-party repo (also known as a tri-party repo). In this arrangement, a clearing agent or bank conducts the transactions between the buyer and seller and protects the interests of each. It holds the securities and ensures that the seller receives cash at the onset of the agreement and that the buyer transfers funds for the benefit of the seller and delivers the securities at maturation. The primary clearing banks for tri-party repo in the United States are JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon. In addition to taking custody of the securities involved in the transaction, these clearing agents also value the securities and ensure that a specified margin is applied. They settle the transaction on their books and assist dealers in optimizing collateral. What clearing banks do not do, however, is act as matchmakers; these agents do not find dealers for cash investors or vice versa, and they do not act as a broker. Typically, clearing banks settle repos early in the day, although a delay in settlement usually means that billions of dollars of intraday credit are extended to dealers each day. These agreements constitute between 80%–90% of the repurchase agreement market, which held approximately $4.2 trillion as of Jun. 9, 2022.
- In a specialized delivery repo, the transaction requires a bond guarantee at the beginning of the agreement and upon maturity. This type of agreement is not very common.
- In a held-in-custody repo, the seller receives cash for the sale of the security, but holds it in a custodial account for the buyer. This type of agreement is even less common because there is a risk the seller may become insolvent and the borrower may not have access to the collateral.
Near and Far Legs
Like many other corners of the financial world, repurchase agreements involve terminology that is not commonly found elsewhere. One of the most common terms in the repo space is the “leg.” There are different types of legs: for instance, the portion of the repurchase agreement transaction in which the security is initially sold is sometimes referred to as the “start leg,” while the repurchase which follows is the “close leg.”
These terms are also sometimes exchanged for “near leg” and “far leg,” respectively. In the near leg of a repo transaction, the security is sold. In the far leg, it is repurchased.
The Significance of the Repo Rate
When government central banks repurchase securities from private banks, they do so at a discounted rate, known as the repo rate. Like prime rates, repo rates are set by central banks. The repo rate system allows governments to control the money supply within economies by increasing or decreasing available funds.
A decrease in repo rates encourages banks to sell securities back to the government in return for cash. This increases the money supply available to the general economy. Conversely, by increasing repo rates, central banks can effectively decrease the money supply by discouraging banks from reselling these securities.
In order to determine the true costs and benefits of a repurchase agreement, a buyer or seller interested in participating in the transaction must consider three different calculations:
- Cash paid in the initial security sale
- Cash to be paid in the repurchase of the security
- Implied interest rate
The cash paid in the initial security sale and the cash paid in the repurchase will be dependent upon the value and type of security involved in the repo. In the case of a bond, for instance, both of these values will need to take into consideration the clean price and the value of the accrued interest for the bond.
A crucial calculation in any repo agreement is the implied rate of interest. If the interest rate is not favorable, a repo agreement may not be the most efficient way of gaining access to short-term cash. A formula which can be used to calculate the real rate of interest is below:
Interest rate = [(future value/present value) – 1] x year/number of days between consecutive legs
Once the real interest rate has been calculated, a comparison of the rate against those pertaining to other types of funding will reveal whether or not the repurchase agreement is a good deal. Generally, as a secured form of lending, repurchase agreements offer better terms than money market cash lending agreements. From the perspective of a reverse repo participant, the agreement can generate extra income on excess cash reserves as well.
Risks of Repo
Repurchase agreements are generally seen as credit-risk mitigated instruments. The largest risk in a repo is that the seller may fail to hold up its end of the agreement by not repurchasing the securities which it sold at the maturity date. In these situations, the buyer of the security may then liquidate the security in order to attempt to recover the cash that it paid out initially.
Why this constitutes an inherent risk, though, is that the value of the security may have declined since the initial sale, and it thus may leave the buyer with no option but to either hold the security which it never intended to maintain over the long term or to sell it for a loss. On the other hand, there is a risk for the borrower in this transaction as well; if the value of the security rises above the agreed-upon terms, the creditor may not sell the security back.
There are mechanisms built into the repurchase agreement space to help mitigate this risk. For instance, many repos are over-collateralized. In many cases, if the collateral falls in value, a margin call can take effect to ask the borrower to amend the securities offered. In situations in which it appears likely that the value of the security may rise and the creditor may not sell it back to the borrower, under-collateralization can be utilized to mitigate risk.
Generally, credit risk for repurchase agreements is dependent upon many factors, including the terms of the transaction, the liquidity of the security, the specifics of the counterparties involved, and much more.
The Financial Crisis and the Repo Market
Following the 2008 financial crisis, investors focused on a particular type of repo known as repo 105. There was speculation that these repos had played a part in Lehman Brothers’ attempts at hiding its declining financial health leading up to the crisis. In the years immediately following the crisis, the repo market in the U.S. and abroad contracted significantly. However, in more recent years it has recovered and continued to grow.
The crisis revealed problems with the repo market in general. Since that time, the Fed has stepped in to analyze and mitigate systemic risk. The Fed identified at least three areas of concern:
- The tri-party repo market’s reliance on the intraday credit which the clearing banks provide
- A lack of effective plans to help liquidate the collateral when a dealer defaults
- A shortage of viable risk management practices
Starting in late 2008, the Fed and other regulators established new rules to address these and other concerns. Among the effects of these regulations was an increased pressure on banks to maintain their safest assets, such as Treasuries. They are incentivized to not lend them out through repo agreements.
According to Bloomberg, the impact of the regulations has been significant: up through late 2008, the estimated value of global securities loaned in this fashion stood close to $4 trillion. Since that time, though, the figure has hovered closer to $2 trillion. Further, the Fed has increasingly entered into repurchase (or reverse repurchase) agreements as a means of offsetting temporary swings in bank reserves.
Nonetheless, in spite of regulatory changes over the last decade, there remain systemic risks to the repo space. The Fed continues to worry about a default by a major repo dealer that might inspire a fire sale among money funds which could then negatively impact the broader market. The future of the repo space may involve continued regulations to limit the actions of these transactors, or it may even eventually involve a shift toward a central clearinghouse system. For the time being, though, repurchase agreements remain an important means of facilitating short-term borrowing.