Tuesday, February 19, 2008

US banks borrow $50bn via new Fed facility

US banks borrow $50bn via new Fed facility

By Gillian Tett in London

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US banks have been quietly borrowing massive amounts of money from the Federal Reserve in recent weeks by using a new measure the Fed introduced two months ago to help ease the credit crunch.

The use of the Fed’s Term Auction Facility, which allows banks to borrow at relatively attractive rates against a wider range of their assets than previously permitted, saw borrowing of nearly $50bn of one-month funds from the Fed by mid-February.

US officials say the trend shows that financial authorities have become far more adept at channelling liquidity into the banking system to alleviate financial stress, after failing to calm money markets last year.

However, the move has sparked unease among some analysts about the stress developing in opaque corners of the US banking system and the banks’ growing reliance on indirect forms of government support.

“The TAF ... allows the banks to borrow money against all sort of dodgy collateral,” says Christopher Wood, analyst at CLSA. “The banks are increasingly giving the Fed the garbage collateral nobody else wants to take ... [this] suggests a perilous condition for America’s banking system.”

The Fed announced the TAF tool on December 12 as part of a co-ordinated package of measures unveiled by leading western central banks to calm money markets.

The measure marks a distinct break from past US policy. Before its introduction, banks either had to raise money in the open market or use the so-called “discount window” for emergencies. However, last year many banks refused to use the discount window, even though they found it hard to raise funds in the market, because it was associated with the stigma of bank failure.

The Fed has not yet indicated how long the TAF will remain in place.

But the popularity of the scheme is prompting speculation the reform will stay in place as long as the financial stresses last.

“Some Fed officials have expressed an interest in keeping and possibly expanding the TAF,” says Michael Feroli, economist at JPMorgan.

Nevertheless, Mr Feroli said banks now appeared to be using the TAF instead of other funding routes, meaning that the overall level of reserves in the system was remaining constant. “The banking system certainly has its problems, however the notion that ... banks have trouble maintaining reserves stems from a superficial reading of the Fed’s statistical reports,” he said.

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