Yields on U.S. Treasuries have fallen to levels once thought impossible, and we are now hearing the “B” word (bubble) used to describe these formerly staid securities. Just a few days ago I was resisting the bubble label, but with the 10-year dropping below 2.10%, its getting very hard to argue. But more important than assigning labels like “bubble” is to discern what could cause the Treasury market to move in the other direction. In other words, if its a bubble, when can you short it?
First, consider who is driving the Treasury market to these levels. It isn’t relative value investors, like money managers and mutual funds. Sure they might hold some amount in Treasury bonds for liquidity and duration management. But these kinds of managers are generally assuming that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt has equivalent credit quality as Treasuries with substantially better yield. So investors who are willing to consider relative value have already reduced Treasury holdings as much as they are likely to any time soon. So selling pressure isn’t likely to come from relative value buyers.
Foreign buyers have dominated the demand side of things, buying up just over half of net Treasury issuance in October. Why are they willing to buy at historic low levels? Classically foreign buying of U.S. bonds has been due to recycling of trade dollars. In other words, foreign money will keep flowing into the U.S. so long as U.S. consumers are buying foreign goods. Foreign buying of Treasuries has been especially robust among private accounts (not central banks), which suggests that foreign financial institutions are driving demand.
A slowdown of foreign buying would clearly push rates higher, but in the near term, what would be the catalyst? Note that foreigners have been paying for their Treasury bonds by selling government Agency debt, $50 billion worth in October. This is reflective of a lack of confidence in any security not directly backed by the U.S. Government. The Treasury could make the backing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac explicit, but even this won’t instantly reverse selling of Agency securities. Foreign trading is notoriously slow-moving, often waiting for bond maturities to reinvest rather than trading their portfolios.
Many of those calling the Treasury market a bubble are ignoring the threat of deflation. Under deflation, normal perceptions of interest rates as well as relationships among interest-bearing instruments break down.
Of course, we don’t need investors to sell to create selling pressure. The Treasury is doing plenty of selling of its own. If investors, both foreign and domestic, gained more confidence in financial institution generally, they would move out of Treasuries and into better yielding, high quality bonds. But that will be a slow process. But until this happens, demand for ultra-safe investments will continue unabated, keeping a lid on Treasury rates.