Earlier this evening I was reading the latest issue of TheContraryInvestor "Quite The Personal Bond," and was puzzled by his account of the Treasury market.
As shown in this chart, the foreign sector has begun to reduce their exposure to US sovereign debt, just as they were sellers of Agency debt in 2008.
So who is buying Treasuries according to the latest government data?
"US households purchased $529 billion of US Treasuries in the first nine months of 2009, accounting for 45% of total new Treasury issuance. And you have been wondering just how Treasury yields have stayed so low for so long? Wonder no more. US households have done the heavy lifting unlike any other buyer this year. And as we have stated in the past, this decision by households has been driven by two very strong human emotions- fear and greed. Fear of losing money in what is a once in a generation credit bust environment. And greed from the standpoint that the Fed has made money funds completely unpalatable in terms of nominal yield prospects. Of course Treasury yields are not much higher by any means."So far this year the Fed has purchased $293.3 Billion of Treasury Debt, and is by far the largest purchaser of Agency Debt at $803.8 Billion.
Foreign entities bought $373.3 billion of Treasury debt, and were net sellers again of $110.3 billion of Agency debt and $73.1 of US corporate debt.
"US households purchased $529 billion of US Treasuries in the first nine months of 2009, accounting for 45% of total new Treasury issuance. And you have been wondering just how Treasury yields have stayed so low for so long? Wonder no more. US households have done the heavy lifting unlike any other buyer this year. And as we have stated in the past, this decision by households has been driven by two very strong human emotions- fear and greed. Fear of losing money in what is a once in a generation credit bust environment. And greed from the standpoint that the Fed has made money funds completely unpalatable in terms of nominal yield prospects. Of course Treasury yields are not much higher by any means."So, according to the government, US households are absolutely piling into US sovereign and corporate debt at record levels, and at record low interest rates.
And almost no one but the Fed is buying Agency Debt.
Bill Gross of Pimco has the largest mutual fund ever, compliments of the bond stampede. The prior record was in 2007 with a growth fund that was decimated by the market crash of that year. And this is why I think we might see quite a bloodbath in the bonds in 2010, as mom and pop get skinned by the Street for weighing in so heavily on this one sided trade in US sovereign debt. The US household sector is a slow moving convoy, presenting a traditional and tempting target for the Wall Street wolf packs.
Here is another viewpoint on essentially the same data that I was just reading this evening at Trader's Narrative titled, Is It All Just a Ponzi Scheme? His take on this is a little less sanguine than the ContraryInvestor.
"At first it seems that the common US household is stepping up and lending Uncle Sam the almost $2 billion. We’ve discussed at length the stampede of retail investors into bond funds this year. But as Sprott [Asset Management] details below, according to the Fed’s own disclosures, this is not what is happening. No wonder then that the US dollar has cratered and gold is the best performing asset this decade..."Sprott Asset Management says:
"Our concern now is that this is all starting to resemble one giant Ponzi scheme. We all know that the Fed has been active in the market for T-bills. As you can see from Table A, under the auspices of Quantitative Easing, they bought almost 50% of the new Treasury issues in Q2 and almost 30% in Q3. It serves to remember that the whole point of selling new US Treasury bonds is to attract outside capital to finance deficits or to pay off existing debts that are maturing. We are now in a situation, however, where the Fed is printing dollars to buy Treasuries as a means of faking the Treasury’s ability to attract outside capital. If our research proves anything, it’s that the regular buyers of US debt are no longer buying, and it amazes us that the US can successfully issue a record number Treasuries in this environment without the slightest hiccup in the market."
So what does all this mean?
The bottom line is that the data seems to indicate that the foreign sector traditional buyers (at least for the past 20 years or so) of US sovereign debt are walking away from the market as they had said they would do, and are moving their reserves into other instruments.
This may not be such a great problem if the US trade balance continues to narrow, but it certainly is not healthy to see the Fed and the US household sector as the major markets for US sovereign debt.
If 2010 is not a year of recovery for the average American, the ability of the Treasury and Fannie/Freddie to keep expanding their debt offerings is going to become quickly constrained. How can Joe Sixpack keep saving and buying Treasuries, and at the same time consume at a rate sufficient to grow GDP? All on a stagnant median wage and a contracting housing market? Think the rest of the world is suddenly going to grow a taste for US exports? Will the US retreat into isolationism and trade barriers? That might not be Price Index friendly.
The US is marshaling its ratings agencies and multinationals to cast doubt on the European union, their currency, and their solvency, and threaten to take them down first to maintain an equilibrium of failures.
But in fact, the US is much closer to the point of a serious debt crisis than one might imagine from what is being put out by most US based financial analysts. There is a nasty convergence of constraints bearing down on the Fed and the Treasury that look to push the ability to market dollar debt to the breaking point. If a couple big States go under next year, the dominoes may start falling very quickly.
I see the problem, but I have to confess that I do not yet see how the Bernanke Fed intends to dodge this collision. And I know that they must see this as well, and have a game plan. Could counting on an exogenous event that would provoke an artificial demand and neo-isolationism (something like a regional war, or at least a trade war) be called a plan? Can they possibly be in denial, and just looting the capital before the Empire falls? It is hard to see how the resolution of this will unfold just yet, but I am pretty sure that many of the simple scenarios that people are laying out so nicely with such fine rhetoric are more fantasy than probable outcomes. This is going to knock our socks off default-wise.
If you think that this crisis will be deflationary, then you might be a bit surprised to see what happens if and when a US sovereign debt offering fails in the market. It will not be pretty. And it will not be dollar friendly in the longer term. But who can say what will happen, when there are so many possibilities.
The market may likely reveal to us what is coming, if we are observant, and lucky, and have the willingness to listen to what we may not wish to hear.
There are some definite gaps and assumptions in the case that Sprott makes, raising more questions than providing answers. It is possible that Americans have shifted an enormous amount of capital out of consumption and stocks into Treasuries. It is also possible that this is just masking something else, as Sprott suggests. But this does not affect the argument we make, that something has got to give, as the US consumer is tapped, and cannot sustain this type of sovereign debt purchasing given the offerings that the Treasury must make in 2010. And if it is something else, then that will be revealed 'when the tide goes out' next year. The Fed and its enablers are the buyers of last resort, increasingly so. And that means increasing monetization, and a stretching of the value basis of the bonds and the dollars.
Read the full analysis from Sprott Asset Management here.