Fed Steps Up Newly Issued Debt Buys, Stimulus Drains Supply

The Federal Reserve has been accelerating purchases of more newly issued Treasuries as part of its maturity-extension program while primary dealers’ willingness to offer securities to the central bank ebbs.

For the first time, the Fed bought the so-called on-the-run, or most actively traded, 10-year note last month as part of its Operation Twist program. It purchased $667 million of the benchmark 10-year on July 18, followed by $1.57 billion on July 25 and $1.85 billion on Aug. 6.

The 21 primary dealers submitted offers equaling $2.22 for each $1 of the securities bought by the Fed in yesterday’s debt purchases, compared with an average of $2.8 in offers this year. The Fed’s Operation Twist followed buying $2.3 trillion of mortgage and Treasury debt from 2008 to 2011 in two rounds of so-called quantitative easing, or QE, while Treasury yields reached record lows in July.

“The Fed purchases have been moving further and further into recently issued bonds in different maturity sectors,” said Scott Sherman, an interest-rate strategist at Credit Suisse Group AG in New York, in an interview. “It’s a signal that the central bank is consuming the inventory out there that people hold and are willing to sell in old off-the-run issues. The Fed therefore is going to have to buy where there is supply that people are willing to get rid of. And recently issued bonds fit that description.”

Monetary Policy

The Fed is purchasing Treasuries as part of its effort to support the economy by swapping $667 billion of short-term debt with longer-term securities to lengthen the average maturity of its holdings, an action dubbed Operation Twist.

The central bank sold $7.8 billion in Treasuries today with a maturity range of February 2014 through August 2014 as part of Operation Twist. The Fed is scheduled to purchase between $1.5 and $2 billion in bonds maturing from February 2036 through August 2042 tomorrow.

The Fed owns its self-imposed upper limit of 70 percent of the total outstanding of seven notes that have maturity dates between 2020 and 2022 in its System Open Market Account, or SOMA, as of Aug. 8, according to data on the Fed Bank of New York’s website. In the 10- to 20-year maturity sector, the central bank overall owns 34 percent of the amount outstanding, according to Barclays Plc.

With the Fed owning more than 50 percent of the outstanding amount of many off-the-run notes, holders are becoming less willing to sell and this may eventually affect liquidity, Sherman said. When there are fewer securities in the open market to buy and sell it can affect liquidity by increasing the spread between the bid and offered prices, making it more difficult to purchase or sell large quantities.

Holdings Limit

The Fed imposed a limit for its open-market debt purchases of as high as 70 percent of the total outstanding of any single Treasury security in December 2010.

“In the eight- to 10-year maturity sector, there are only a few securities that are still eligible to be offered to the Fed,” said Anshul Pradhan, an interest-rate strategist in New York at Barclays. “Primary dealers end up absorbing a substantial share of the auctions, which makes it easier for them to offer recently issued securities to the Fed.”

The U.S. central bank has held short-term interest rates near zero since 2008 and plans to keep them there through 2014 to stimulate the world’s biggest economy. Benchmark 10-year yields reached a record low 1.38 percent on July 25, while 30-year bond yields established an all-time low of 2.44 percent on July 26.

Economic Watch

Earlier this month, the Fed said it would pump fresh stimulus, if necessary, into the weakening economic expansion to boost growth and reduce an unemployment rate that’s been stuck at 8 percent or higher for more than three years.

The Federal Open Market Committee “will provide additional accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions in a context of price stability,” it said on Aug. 1 in a statement at the end of a two-day meeting in Washington. “Economic activity decelerated somewhat over the first half of this year.”

“If we were to continue to see the Fed buying the on-the-runs then it could impact liquidity,” said Larry Milstein, managing director in New York of government and agency debt trading at R.W. Pressprich & Co., a fixed-income broker and dealer for institutional investors. “In the past, you have seen that if liquidity becomes an issue, the on-the-run begins to trade very rich versus the off-the-runs. When that has happened, you’ve generally seen a reaction with the Treasury coming out to issue more of the same bond to improve liquidity.”

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