Can you trust the ‘primary dealers?’

Bob Moon Nov 21, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: Well in Europe this morning, the big news is that Spain has voted in a new leader. This is the third government changeover in Europe in as many weeks. So far the debt crisis hasn’t had a huge impact on our financial system, with the exception of MF Global which recently went bankrupt because of large bets on European debt. Now, MF Global may not have been a household name before its collapse.

But as our senior business correspodent Bob Moon reports, it was a member of a very exclusive club at the Fed.

Bob Moon: When the man behind the curtain at the Federal Reserve wants to get control of a wicked witch in the financial world, he enlists the help of others.

“Wizard of Oz” clip: Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful. Yes, sir.

When the Fed needs help pouring money on the nasty economy, for example, it uses what are called “primary dealers” — firms that buy and sell massive amounts of government bonds to control the flow of money.

David Wyss is a former chief economist for the Fed. He says literally saving the world — at least financially speaking — requires firms that are up to the task. And the Fed’s website says it rigorously reviews those partners to make sure they are.

David Wyss: Obviously, they want to deal with people who are going to be around, not people who are going to disappear next week. So, clearly they missed it on this one.

“This one” being the recent bankruptcy of MF Global, just nine months after the Fed chose the firm as one of its “primary dealers.” The Fed’s website cautions that its list of special trading partners is not meant to be an endorsement.

But at Stone & McCarthy Research Associates, Ray Stone says it’s pretty much viewed as one.

Ray Stone: While the Fed isn’t giving them a good housekeeping seal of approval, they are thought by their customers to be stronger and bigger and get better prices than the little dealers.

Those customers range from big-money investors to retirement funds. The failure of MF Global is yet another blow to trust in the financial markets, and the Fed is now requiring its “primary dealers” to keep more rainy day cash on hand.

Banking industry consultant Bert Ely says it figures.

Bert Ely: That’s not surprising. Usually, after the house burns down, people start trying to figure out how do we prevent the next fire? So this is a typical, after-the-fact response.

Ely expects a congressional inquiry into how MF Global was chosen, and whether similar troubles might be lurking.

I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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