What Is a Repurchase Agreement?
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What Is a Repurchase Agreement?

9 Min.

A repurchase agreement, commonly known as a "repo," is a financial transaction in which a seller agrees to sell securities to a buyer and then buy them back at a slightly higher price later. In this transaction, the seller essentially borrows money, and the buyer is lending money. The buyer earns interest on the transaction, which is the difference between the original sale price and the price at which the securities are repurchased. Repos and reverse repos are typically used for short-term borrowing and lending, usually ranging from overnight to 48 hours. The interest rate on these agreements is called the repo rate, which is considered a proxy for the risk-free overnight rate.

Basics

In financial markets, a repurchase agreement (repo) is a brief borrowing method for government securities dealers. In this arrangement, dealers vend government securities to investors, usually overnight, only to repurchase them the next day at a marginally increased cost. This slight price disparity constitutes the implicit overnight interest rate, making repos a prevalent tool for short-term capital generation. Additionally, central banks frequently employ repos in their open market operations. Conversely, for the party initiating the sale of securities with a commitment to repurchase, it is a repo, while for the counterparty purchasing the securities with an agreement to sell them later, it is termed a reverse repurchase agreement.

Insights Into Repurchase Agreements

Repurchase agreements, commonly perceived as secure investments, leverage securities, with U.S. Treasury bonds frequently serving as collateral. Operating as short-term, collateralized, interest-bearing loans within the money-market category, these transactions see the buyer as a transient lender and the seller as a brief borrower. The securities on offer function as collateral, ensuring both parties achieve their objectives of secured funding and enhanced liquidity.

Engaged by diverse entities, repurchase agreements serve various purposes. The Federal Reserve utilizes them to manage money supply and bank reserves, while individuals often employ these agreements to fund debt security acquisitions or other investments. Strictly short-term, these investments are delineated by their maturity period, referred to as the "rate," the "term," or the "tenor."

Despite resembling collateralized loans, repos are actual purchases. However, the buyer's temporary ownership treats these transactions like loans for tax and accounting purposes. Notably, in bankruptcy scenarios, repo investors usually have the option to sell their collateral, distinguishing repos from collateralized loans, where investors may face an automatic stay in the event of bankruptcy.

Comparative Analysis: Term vs. Open Repurchase Agreements

Distinguishing between term and open repurchase agreements hinges on the duration between the securities' sale and repurchase. Term repurchase agreements feature a predetermined maturity date (typically the following day or week). Here, a dealer sells securities to a counterparty with an agreement to repurchase them at an increased price on a specified date. The counterparty utilizes the securities for the transaction's term, earning interest calculated as the difference between the initial sale and buyback prices. With a fixed interest rate, the dealer settles interest at maturity. Term repos are ideal for cash investment or asset financing when the parties have a defined timeframe.

Conversely, an open repurchase agreement, akin to a term repo, lacks a fixed maturity date. The dealer and counterparty agree to the transaction, subject to termination by either party with notice before a daily deadline. Unterminated open repos roll over daily, with monthly interest payments. The interest rate is periodically adjusted by mutual agreement, generally aligning with the federal funds rate. Open repos suit scenarios where the parties lack a predefined duration, typically concluding within one or two years.

Impact of Duration: Assessing Risks in Repurchase Agreements

The duration of repos plays a pivotal role in risk assessment, with longer tenors generally viewed as higher risk. Extended tenors expose repurchasers to increased factors affecting creditworthiness and elevate susceptibility to interest rate fluctuations, impacting the repurchased asset's value.

This phenomenon parallels the influences on bond interest rates, where longer-duration bonds typically yield higher interest in standard credit market conditions. Long-term bond investments hinge on the anticipation that interest rates will remain stable throughout the bond's lifespan. However, extended durations amplify the likelihood of unexpected events, potentially driving interest rates beyond forecasted ranges. Instances of heightened inflation devalue the real terms of interest paid on pre-inflation bonds.

This analogy extends to repos, where a lengthier term correlates with heightened collateral securities' value volatility before repurchase, influenced by business activities impacting the repurchaser's contract fulfillment. The primary risk in repos is counterparty credit risk.

Similar to conventional loans, creditors shoulder the risk of debtors failing to repay the principal. Repos mitigate total risk by functioning as collateralized debt. The advantageous pricing, with the repo price surpassing collateral value, upholds mutual benefits for both buyers and sellers.

Varieties of Repurchase Agreements

Third-Party Repo (Tri-Party Repo)

A prevailing type, the third-party repo, involves a clearing agent or bank facilitating transactions, safeguarding the interests of both parties. It manages securities, ensuring the seller obtains cash upfront, and the buyer transfers funds and delivers securities upon maturation. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon serve as primary clearing banks in the U.S. Besides custody and valuation, these agents apply specified margins, settling transactions and aiding dealers in optimizing collateral. However, they do not act as matchmakers or brokers. Despite technically settling at day's end, early settlement extends billions in intraday credit to dealers. 

Specialized Delivery Repo

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.

Held-in-Custody Repo

A rarer type entails the seller receiving cash for the security sale but holding it in a custodial account for the buyer. This agreement is infrequent due to the inherent risk of seller insolvency, potentially impeding borrower access to collateral.

Understanding Repurchase Agreement Legs

Within financial transactions, repurchase agreements employ unique terminology not commonly encountered elsewhere. A prevalent term in the repo domain is the "leg." Legs in repurchase agreements can be categorized into specific types, such as the "start leg," representing the initial sale of the security, and the subsequent repurchase phase, known as the "close leg." Alternatively, these terms are occasionally substituted with "near leg" and "far leg." In the near leg, the security is sold, while in the far leg, it undergoes repurchase.

Understanding Repo Rates and Evaluating Repurchase Agreements

The repo rate, a discounted rate at which government central banks repurchase securities from private banks, mirrors prime rates and is regulated by central banks. Governing the money supply in economies, the repo rate system empowers governments to manipulate available funds by adjusting rates.

Lowering repo rates prompts banks to exchange securities for cash, augmenting the money supply. Conversely, elevating repo rates discourages banks from reselling securities, effectively diminishing the money supply.

For potential participants in a repurchase agreement, evaluating costs and benefits involves three key considerations:

  1. Cash from the initial security sale
  2. Cash for the repurchase of the security
  3. Implied interest rate

The values for the initial sale and repurchase hinge on the security's type and value, especially in bond transactions, where clean price and accrued interest are critical factors.

A pivotal factor in any repo agreement is the implied interest rate, calculated using the formula:

Interest rate = [(future value/present value) – 1] x year/number of days between consecutive legs

​Assessing the real interest rate against other funding options determines the agreement's efficiency. Generally favorable repurchase agreements, secured lending, often offer superior terms compared to money market cash lending agreements. From the perspective of a reverse repo participant, the agreement can generate additional income on excess cash reserves.

Assessing Risks in Repurchase Agreements

Repurchase agreements are commonly viewed as instruments mitigating credit risk, yet inherent risks persist. The primary concern is the potential failure of the seller to repurchase securities at the agreed maturity date, leading the buyer to liquidate the security to recover the initial cash outlay.

This risk arises as the security's value may decline since the initial sale, leaving the buyer with the option of retaining an unintended long-term asset or selling it at a loss. Conversely, there is a risk for the borrower if the security's value surpasses the agreed terms, preventing the creditor from selling it back.

To counter such risks, repurchase agreements often incorporate protective measures. Over-collateralization is prevalent, triggering a margin call if the collateral depreciates, prompting the borrower to adjust offered securities. Conversely, under-collateralization is employed when anticipating a potential rise in security value, reducing risk. Credit risk in repurchase agreements hinges on diverse factors, encompassing transaction terms, security liquidity, counterparty specifics, and more.

Impact of the Financial Crisis on the Repo Market and Regulatory Responses

Post the 2008 financial crisis, investors scrutinized a specific repo type, dubbed repo 105, amid speculation about its role in concealing Lehman Brothers' deteriorating financial health pre-crisis. The global repo market contracted in the aftermath of the crisis, but recent years have witnessed recovery and growth.

The crisis unveiled issues in the repo market, prompting Fed intervention to analyze and mitigate systemic risks. Identified concerns included the tri-party repo market's reliance on clearing banks' intraday credit, insufficient plans for collateral liquidation during dealer default, and a shortage of effective risk management practices.

In late 2008, regulatory responses were implemented, including rules incentivizing banks to retain safe assets. These changes pressured banks to withhold the safest assets like Treasuries, reducing the global value of securities loaned from around $4 trillion in late 2008 to approximately $2 trillion. The Fed also engaged in repurchase (or reverse repurchase) agreements to counter temporary bank reserve fluctuations.

Despite regulatory adjustments, systemic risks persist in the repo space. The Fed remains concerned about a major repo dealer default triggering a money fund fire sale, negatively impacting the broader market. Future developments may involve further regulations or a potential shift toward a central clearinghouse system. Currently, repurchase agreements continue as a vital tool for short-term borrowing.

Conclusion

In the world of repurchase agreements (repos), there exists a complex financial landscape. This landscape features various terms, risks, and regulatory responses. From short-term, collateralized transactions to nuances in agreement types, the repo journey involves ongoing adaptation.

Post-2008 scrutiny prompted regulatory safeguards, yet persistent risks underscore the evolving nature of financial markets. Repos, vital for short-term borrowing, demand a delicate balance between risk mitigation and operational efficiency. In this changing landscape, stakeholders seek equilibrium, marking a trajectory of resilience, recovery, and continual evolution.

Repurchase Agreement (Repo)
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