Investors outside the U.S. have boosted their holdings of longer-maturity Treasuries to the highest level since the credit markets froze in 2008, helping curb rising yields amid concern inflation is accelerating.
International buyers held 90 percent of their $4.44 trillion of U.S. government debt in notes and bonds as of December, the same as in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed, Treasury data released last week show. The ratio fell to 83 percent in October 2009 as investors sought the safety of Treasury bills with the U.S. economic recovery still in question.
The shift toward long-term debt shows bond buyers outside the U.S. agree with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s assessment that inflation will be contained even as global food and energy prices soar. Bill Gross, who runs the world’s biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., warned last week that yields on Treasuries are too low with inflation accelerating and the central bank planning to complete $600 billion in asset purchases in June.
“Inflation in the U.S. isn’t a big problem,” said Zeal Yin, who buys Treasuries for Shin Kong Life Insurance Co. in Taipei, Taiwan’s second-largest life insurer with the equivalent of $50.6 billion in assets. Yin said he purchased U.S. government debt last week. “I’m bullish.”
Stocks Beat Bonds
The yield on the benchmark 3.625 percent note due February 2021 rose eight basis points, or 0.08 percentage point, to 3.49 percent last week, and climbed two basis points to 3.51 percent at 11 a.m. in New York, according to BGCantor Market Data.
Ten-year yields increased in each of the past six months, the longest stretch since the period ended June 2006, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. U.S. government securities have lost 0.4 percent this year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s U.S. Treasury Master index. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has climbed 5.1 percent during the same period as confidence in the economic recovery grows.
“We increased the portion of foreign-currency-denominated bonds, mainly Treasuries, because of the higher interest rates,” said Satoshi Okumoto, a general manager in Tokyo at Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Co., which has the equivalent of $67.1 billion in assets. “When we need to increase our foreign-currency bonds significantly, the U.S. is the only place to put the money because of the liquidity.”
The amount of marketable U.S. debt outstanding surpassed $9 trillion last month. Retaining demand from international buyers, who own half of the Treasury debt outstanding, is key to keeping borrowing costs from surging as the Obama administration seeks to finance cumulative budget deficits that the White House estimates will exceed $4 trillion through 2015.
Interest expense will rise to 3.1 percent of gross domestic product by 2016, from 1.3 percent in 2010, according to administration estimates. While yields on the benchmark 10-year note are up, they remain below the average of 4.13 percent over the past decade.
The Treasury will sell $66 billion of three-, 10-and 30-year securities over three days beginning tomorrow. Last month, indirect bidders, the class of buyers that includes foreign central banks, bought a record 71 percent, or $17 billion of the $24 billion in 10-year notes offered at the auction.
China, the largest investor in U.S. government debt after the Fed, increased longer-term notes and bonds by 39 percent to $1.145 trillion in December from a year earlier, while its stake in bills declined 78 percent to $15.4 billion, the most recent Treasury data show.
The nation bought more U.S. bonds even as its leaders criticized Bernanke’s plan for the Fed to buy $600 billion of Treasuries by June. Jesse Wang, executive vice president of China Investment Corp., the country’s $300 billion sovereign wealth fund, said Jan. 15 that devoting too much of its reserves to U.S. assets such as Treasuries was too risky.
“They remain extremely supportive for the Treasury market,” said Priya Misra, head of U.S. rates strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York, one of the 20 primary dealers that trade with the Fed.
Japan, the second largest holder of Treasury debt, increased its investment to a revised $882.3 billion, the highest ever, from $765.7 billion a year earlier.
Longer-term U.S. bonds offer the highest yields relative to short-maturity debt of any Group of Seven nation, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
The yield curve showing the difference between rates on two- and 10-year notes was 2.81 percentage points, after reaching a near record 2.93 percentage points at the start of February. The gap in Germany is 1.51 percentage points, 2.23 in the U.K. and 1.06 in Japan.
The curve will narrow to 2.63 percentage points by year-end and to 2.26 points by mid-2012, based on the median estimate of more than 40 economists and strategists surveyed by Bloomberg.
Strategists say the expectations show investors see little chance of inflation accelerating anytime soon. Returns on 30-year Treasuries, the most vulnerable to rising consumer prices because they have the longest maturity, gained last month for the first time since August, returning 1.51 percent, compared with an average loss of 0.09 percent for all Treasuries, Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes show.
“The yield curve dynamics will change dramatically” in the U.S. as the gap narrows, John Richards, head of North American Strategy at RBS Securities Inc., said at a forum in Tokyo on March 3. “I call this the beginning of the great compression of short-term and long-term rates.”
Oil costing more than $100 a barrel and record high food prices probably won’t cause a permanent increase in inflation and borrowing costs are likely to stay low, Bernanke said March 1 in his semi-annual monetary policy testimony before Congress.
Experience with such price gains in recent decades, along with currently stable labor costs, suggest a “temporary and relatively modest increase in U.S. consumer price inflation,” Bernanke said in Washington.
While the consumer-price index jumped 0.4 percent in January, the core measure, which excludes food and energy, rose 0.2 percent in January, in line with the average monthly gain of 0.16 percent over the past 10 years, figures from the Labor Department showed Feb. 17.
“Bernanke tends to think this doesn’t matter --at least in terms of headline versus the core -- we do,” Gross said in a March 4 interview on “Bloomberg Surveillance” with Tom Keene.
Gross cut holdings of U.S. government and related debt in Pimco’s $237 billion Total Return Fund to 12 percent in January, the least in two years. He recommends higher-returning assets such as emerging-market debt and corporate bonds.
The difference in yields between 10-year notes and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, was 2.50 percentage points on March 4, the highest since July 2008. The spread, which reflects the outlook among traders for consumer prices over the life of the bonds, averaged 2.43 points in the five years before the credit crisis.
“We would not be a buyer of Treasuries at these levels,” said Andy Richman, who oversees $10 billion as a director of fixed-income at SunTrust Bank’s Wealth and Investment Management in Palm Beach, Florida. “Inflation is becoming more of a problem than it has been. The truck of inflation moving down the road is getting closer and closer.”
Treasury yields have also risen on confidence that President Barack Obama’s $858 billion tax compromise in December and the Fed’s monetary policies have put the economy on a more stable path to recovery.
The U.S. added 192,000 jobs in February, a report from the Labor Department showed March 4, up from a revised 63,000 in January. Economists in a Bloomberg News survey had forecast the economy would add 196,000 jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.9 percent, the lowest level since April 2009.
While Bernanke said inflation remains subdued in the U.S., European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet said March 3 the ECB may raise interest rates next month for the first time in almost three years to fight mounting inflation pressures.
The European Union’s central bank boosted its inflation and growth forecasts, saying consumer price gains will average 2.3 percent this year, up from a December forecast of 1.8 percent and exceeding the ECB’s 2 percent limit.