Bond Trading at the Fed

By: Robert Aro

One of the Federal Reserve’s “temporary emergency lending facilities” is being wound down! As announced on Wednesday, all assets purchased under the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF) are expected to be sold. The nearly $14 billion facility holds approximately $8.5 billion corporate bonds, plus various bond Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) valued at approximately $5.2 billion. Bond ETFs are essentially bonds traded on the stock exchange. As the name of the facility implies, both asset purchases occurred on the secondary market.

This begs the question: Why did the Fed make bond purchases on the secondary market?

The primary market for bonds is one where a corporation issues a debt to investors in exchange for money, similar to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for stocks. Whereas the secondary market is where bonds are traded between investors with hopes of earning a profit from investment activities, no different than trading stocks on the NASDAQ after an IPO.

Contrast the standard use of the secondary market with what the Fed claims was the purpose for buying these bonds:

The SMCCF proved vital in restoring market functioning last year, supporting the availability of credit for large employers, and bolstering employment through the COVID-19 pandemic.

This restoration of proper “market function” has yet to be examined, while providing credit to large employers and job creation doesn’t quite add up, as the most recent Report to Congress shows. As of May 10, the SMCCF Transaction-specific Disclosures (XLSX) reveals the Fed held or is currently holding bonds of just over 500 companies: mainly large corporations, like Citadel LP, the privately held hedge fund who bailed out Melvin Capital at the start of the GameStop short squeeze, and some of the big automakers such as Honda, Hyundai and Toyota.

Despite the investment choices of the Fed, considering these were all purchased in the secondary market means the money from the Fed did not go to the company whose bonds it was purchasing. Rather, the investor who previously held the bonds in the market were the recipient of the Fed’s payment.

How a central bank trading in the bond market, the payment to investors, or the trading gains or losses translates into supporting credit to large employers, and in the Fed’s own words “bolstering employment” seems strange. One might say the Fed’s intervention and newly created money influenced investor behavior, rates, prices and the bond market itself; but the effect of $14 billion in bond purchases in the $46 trillion US fixed-income market cannot be measured. Since the Fed cannot measure or even clearly identify the effect of its intervention, it becomes impossible to say whether the intervention was a successful endeavor.

With the Fed commencing sales on June 7 and the expectation of completing by the end of this year, it will be interesting to see whether the Fed makes profitable trades or finds ways to lose money. Should trading loses ensue, the fine print in Note 3 on the May 10 Report to Congress explains who will cover the loss:

equity investment from the Department of the Treasury and related reinvestment earnings of $13,897,250,997…

If there is any consolation, understand, it could have been much worse. The SMCCF combined with the Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF) had authorization of up to $750 billion to spend. Comparatively, $14 billion on bonds and another $14 billion of an equity investment from the Treasury is merely a “small” anti-capitalist infringement to benefit a handful of wealthy individuals at society’s expense, a little price we pay to have a central bank.

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