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The Repo Ruse

Scheme in Which Loans Are Mislabeled As Sales Continues to Endanger the Financial System

May 17, 2012 — In the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, banks depended increasingly on an unreliable method of funding their activities, called “repurchase agreements,” or repos. Repos may look like relatively safe borrowing agreements, but they can quickly create widespread instability in the financial system. The dangers of repos stem from a legal fiction: despite being the functional equivalent of secured loans, repo agreements are legally defined as sales. Dressing up repo loans as sales can lead to sloppy lending practices, followed by sudden decisions by lenders to end their risky lending agreements and market panics. Repos also permit financial institutions to cover up shortcomings on their balance sheets. The problems in the repo market were exposed as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, yet the risks posed by repos remain largely unaddressed. Without reform, the financial system will remain susceptible to the sudden and severe shocks that repos can cause.

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