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Back in September of 2022, we published a Bespoke Report entitled “Hike It ‘Til You Break It” (link). In that report we characterized the Powell Fed as seeming “committed to breaking either the financial system or economy…whichever it can mangle first”. Stocks made their major bear market low about three weeks later, on October 12th. The Fed Funds rate has been raised another 225 bps since that point, while the 2 year yield (a proxy for the Fed Funds rate a year ahead) went up another 90 bps to a peak of 5.07% on March 8th. The result? The Powell Fed absolutely broke something.

During the pandemic, enormous fiscal transfers and Federal Reserve QE of government bonds meant an enormous buildup of deposits in the banking system. Those deposits were created by either issuance of government bonds or by purchases of those bonds, financed by bank reserves which match with deposits. Banks faced with those massive inflows of deposits generally bought government bonds. Unable to invest in riskier securities or grow loans rapidly thanks to macroprudential regulation, banks were forced to buy low credit-risk government bonds.

While those bonds don’t have a credit risk, they do have duration risk. As long as banks aren’t forced to sell them thanks to ample deposits, they do not have to recognize a mark-to-market loss on those holdings. But for banks that are under deposit pressure, things can get out of hand quickly. Concentrated crypto deposits (like at Silvergate or Synchrony) or exposure to specific demographics (like at Silicon Valley Bank or to a lesser extent First Republic) that fled quickly led to stress and ultimately a need to wipe out equity, though for now the total losses remain unclear.

It remains to be seen whether this effort to break the financial system will have a large macro-economic feedback, but the Federal Reserve has certainly at least managed to create collateral damage via interest rate markets that has dominated headlines this week.

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