Tag Archives: US Treasuries

China’s Empty Threat of Dumping its US Treasuries

“We are looking at all options.”

In an interview about the trade sanctions that President Trump is throwing at China and at Corporate America – whose supply chains go through China in search of cheap labor and other cost savings – Ambassador Cui Tiankai defended the perennial innocence of China, as is to be expected, and trotted out the standard Chinese fig leafs and state-scripted rhetoric that confirmed in essence that Trump’s decision is on the right track.

Speaking on Bloomberg TV, he also trotted out all kinds of more or less vague and veiled threats – such as, “We will take all measures necessary,” or “We’ll see what we’re doing next” – perhaps having forgotten that China and Hong Kong combined export three times as much to the US as the other way around, and the pain of a trade war would be magnified by three on the Chinese side.

When asked about the possibility of China’s cutting back on purchases of US Treasuries – the ultimate threat, it seems, these days as Congress is piling on record deficits leading to a ballooning mounting of debt that requires a constant flow of new buyers – Ambassador Cui Tiankai said:

“We are looking at all options. That’s why we believe any unilateral and protectionist move would hurt everybody, including the United States itself. It would certainly hurt the daily life of American middle-class people, and the American companies, and the financial markets.”

So let’s dig into this threat.

China held $1.17 trillion in Treasuries as of January. That’s about 5.5% of the $21 trillion in total Treasury debt. So it’s not like they have a monopoly on it. These holdings have varied over the years and are down nearly $100 billion from November 2015:

https://wolfstreet.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/US-treasury-holdings-China-2018-01.png

So over the years, the Chinese haven’t been adding Treasuries anyway. Instead, they’ve been shedding some. At the moment, they’re replacing securities that are maturing and nothing more. So they could decide not to replace any maturing Treasuries or they could decide to sell Treasuries. How much impact would that have?

If China dumped its Treasury holdings, in theory, new buyers would have to emerge to buy them, and these new buyers would have to be induced by higher yields. Hence long-term Treasury yields would have to rise.

The vast majority of Treasury debt is held by pension funds of the US government and of state and local governments, and by Americans, either directly or via bond funds, or via stocks in companies like Apple and Microsoft, whose “offshore” cash is invested in all kinds of US securities, including large amounts of US Treasuries, and shareholders of those companies own those securities.

Then there’s the Fed. It holds $2.42 trillion in US Treasuries, or $1.64 trillion more than before the Financial Crisis as a result of QE. If push comes to shove, the Fed could easily mop up a trillion of Treasuries, as it has done before.

In addition, everyone is now fretting about an “inverted yield curve,” which is the phenomenon when long-term yields, such as the 10-year yield, fall below short-term yields, such as the three-month yield or the two-year yield.The last time this happened was before the Financial Crisis.

The Fed’s rate hikes, which started in December 2015, have pushed up short-term yields. For example, the three-month yield went from 0% in late 2015 to 1.74% today. But the 10-year yield, at around 2.2% in December 2015, then declined to a historic low. It has since risen, but only to 2.82% today. In other words, since December 2015, it has gained 62 basis points, while the three-month yield has gained 174 basis points.

What the Fed wants to accomplish with its rate hikes is push up long-term rates. But markets have been fighting the Fed so far. So a sort of a monetary shock, administered from China’s dumping US Treasuries and thus pushing up US long-term yields, would solve that problem. And the Fed can go about its path of raising short-term yields, confident that the Chinese authorities will do their part to push up long-term yields faster than the Fed is pushing up short-term yields. This would steepen the yield curve.

For people who dread and want to avoid a flat or an inverted yield curve, China’s dumping of US Treasuries would be a God send. So China’s threats of this type of retaliation make good media soundbites but are ultimately vacuous.

Source: By Wolf Richter | Wolf Street

Foreign Governments Dump US Treasuries as Never Before, But Who the Heck is Buying Them?

It started with a whimper a couple of years ago and has turned into a roar: foreign governments are dumping US Treasuries. The signs are coming from all sides. The data from the US Treasury Department points at it. The People’s Bank of China points at it in its data releases on its foreign exchange reserves. Japan too has started selling Treasuries, as have other governments and central banks.

Some, like China and Saudi Arabia, are unloading their foreign exchange reserves to counteract capital flight, prop up their own currencies, or defend a currency peg.

Others might sell US Treasuries because QE is over and yields are rising as the Fed has embarked on ending its eight years of zero-interest-rate policy with what looks like years of wild flip-flopping, while some of the Fed heads are talking out loud about unwinding QE and shedding some of the Treasuries on its balance sheet.

Inflation has picked up too, and Treasury yields have begun to rise, and when yields rise, bond prices fall, and so unloading US Treasuries at what might be seen as the peak may just be an investment decision by some official institutions.

The chart below from Goldman Sachs, via Christine Hughes at Otterwood Capital, shows the net transactions of US Treasury bonds and notes in billions of dollars by foreign official institutions (central banks, government funds, and the like) on a 12-month moving average. Note how it started with a whimper, bounced back a little, before turning into wholesale dumping, hitting record after record (red marks added):

https://i0.wp.com/wolfstreet.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/US-Treasuries-net-foreign-transactions.png

The People’s Bank of China reported two days ago that foreign exchange reserves fell by another $12.3 billion in January, to $2.998 trillion, the seventh month in a row of declines, and the lowest in six years. They’re down 25%, or almost exactly $1 trillion, from their peak in June 2014 of nearly $4 trillion (via Trading Economics, red line added):

https://i1.wp.com/wolfstreet.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/China-Foreign-exchange-reserves-2017-01.png

China’s foreign exchange reserves are composed of assets that are denominated in different currencies, but China does not provide details. So of the $1 trillion in reserves that it shed since 2014, not all were denominated in dollars.

The US Treasury Department provides another partial view, based on data collected primarily from US-based custodians and broker-dealers that are holding these securities for China and other countries. But the US Treasury cannot determine which country owns the Treasuries held in custodial accounts overseas. Based on this limited data, China’s holdings of US Treasuries have plunged by $215.2 billion, or 17%, over the most recent 12 reporting months through November, to just above $1 trillion.

So who is buying all these Treasuries when the formerly largest buyers – the Fed, China, and Japan – have stepped away, and when in fact China, Japan, and other countries have become net sellers, and when the Fed is thinking out loud about shedding some of the Treasuries on its balance sheet, just as nearly $900 billion in net new supply (to fund the US government) flooded the market over the past 12 months?

Turns out, there are plenty of buyers among US investors who may be worried about what might happen to some of the other hyper-inflated asset classes.

And for long suffering NIRP refugees in Europe, there’s a special math behind buying Treasuries. They’re yielding substantially more than, for example, French government bonds, with the US Treasury 10-year yield at 2.4%, and the French 10-year yield at 1.0%, as the ECB under its QE program is currently the relentless bid, buying no matter what, especially if no one else wants this paper. So on the face of it, buying US Treasuries would be a no-brainer.

But the math got a lot more one-sided in recent days as French government bonds now face a new risk, even if faint, of being re-denominated from euros into new French francs, against the will of bondholders, an act of brazen default, and these francs would subsequently get watered down, as per the euro-exit election platform of Marine Le Pen. However distant that possibility, the mere prospect of it, or the prospect of what might happen in Italy, is sending plenty of investors to feed on the richer yields sprouting in less chaos, for the moment at least, across the Atlantic.

By Wolf Richter | Wolf Street