Beware the $10 Trillion Glut of Treasuries as Big Deficits Loom

  • Net issuance seen rising after steady declines since 2009
  • Fed seen adding to supply as Treasury ramps up debt sales

Negative yields. Political risk. The Fed. Now add the U.S. deficit to the list of worries to keep beleaguered bond investors up at night.

Since peaking at $1.4 trillion in 2009, the budget deficit has plunged amid government spending cuts and a rebound in tax receipts. But now, America’s borrowing needs are rising once again as a lackluster economy slows revenue growth to a six-year low, data compiled by FTN Financial show. That in turn will pressure the U.S. to sell more Treasuries to bridge the funding gap.

No one predicts an immediate jump in issuance, or a surge in bond yields. But just about everyone agrees that without drastic changes to America’s finances, the government will have to ramp up its borrowing in a big way in the years to come. After a $96 billion increase in the deficit this fiscal year, the U.S. will go deeper and deeper into the red to pay for Social Security and Medicare, projections from the Congressional Budget Office show. The public debt burden could swell by almost $10 trillion in the coming decade as a result.

All the extra supply may ultimately push up Treasury yields and expose holders to losses. And it may come when the Federal Reserve starts to unwind its own holdings -- the biggest source of demand since the financial crisis.

“It’s looking like we are at the end of the line,” when it comes to declining issuance of debt that matures in more than a year, said Michael Cloherty, head of U.S. interest-rate strategy at RBC Capital Markets, one of 23 dealers that bid at Treasury debt auctions. “We have deficits that are going to run higher, and at some point, a Fed that will start allowing its Treasury securities to mature.”

For a story on the outlook for debt and deficits, click here

After the U.S. borrowed heavily in the wake of the financial crisis to bail out the banks and revive the economy, net issuance of Treasuries has steadily declined as budget shortfalls narrowed. In the year that ended September, the government sold $560 billion of Treasuries on a net basis, the least since 2007, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Coupled with increased buying from the Fed, foreign central banks and investors seeking low-risk assets, yields on Treasuries have tumbled even as the overall size of the market ballooned to $13.4 trillion. For the 10-year note, yields hit a record 1.318 percent this month. They were 1.57 percent today. Before the crisis erupted, investors demanded more than 4 percent.

Net Issuance of U.S. Treasuries, Fiscal-Year Basis
Net Issuance of U.S. Treasuries, Fiscal-Year Basis

One reason the U.S. may ultimately have to boost borrowing is paltry revenue growth, said Jim Vogel, FTN’s head of interest-rate strategy.

With the economy forecast to grow only about 2 percent a year for the foreseeable future as Americans save more and spend less, there just won’t enough tax revenue to cover the burgeoning costs of programs for the elderly and poor. Those funding issues will ultimately supersede worries about Fed policy, regardless of who ends up in the White House come January.

As a percentage of the gross domestic product, revenue will remain flat in the coming decade as spending rises, CBO forecasts show. That will increase the deficit from 2.9 percent this fiscal year to almost 5 percent by 2026.

“As the Fed recedes a little bit into the background, all of these other questions need to start coming back into the foreground,” Vogel said.

The potential for a glut in Treasuries is emerging as some measures show buyers aren’t giving themselves any margin of safety. A valuation tool called the term premium stands at minus 0.56 percentage point for 10-year notes. As the name implies, the term premium should normally be positive and has been for almost all of the past 50 years. But in 2016, it’s turned into a discount.

Some of the highest-profile players are already sounding the alarm. Jeffrey Gundlach, who oversees more than $100 billion at DoubleLine Capital, warned of a “mass psychosis” among investors piling into debt securities with ultra-low yields. Bill Gross of Janus Capital Group Inc. compared the sky-high prices in the global bond market to a “supernova that will explode one day.”

Despite the increase in supply, things like the gloomy outlook for global growth, an aging U.S. society and more than $9 trillion of negative-yielding bonds will conspire to keep Treasuries in demand, says Jeffrey Rosenberg, BlackRock Inc.’s chief investment strategist for fixed income.

What’s more, the Treasury is likely to fund much of the deficit in the immediate future by boosting sales of T-bills, which mature in a year or less, rather than longer-term debt like notes or bonds.

“We don’t have any other choice -- if we’re going to increase the budget deficits, they have to be funded” with more debt, Rosenberg said. But, “in today’s environment, you’re seeing the potential for higher supply in an environment that is profoundly lacking supply of risk-free assets.”

Deutsche Bank AG also says the long-term fiscal outlook hinges more on who controls Congress. And if the Republicans, who hold both the House and Senate, retain control in November, it’s more likely future deficits will come in lower than forecast, based on the firm’s historical analysis.

Fed Holdings of Treasuries Coming DueEst. Amount
                                   2016$216 Billion
                                   2017$197 Billion
                                   2018$410 Billion
                                   2019$338 Billion

However things turn out this election year, what the Fed does with its $2.46 trillion of Treasuries may ultimately prove to be most important of all for investors. Since the Fed ended quantitative easing in 2014, the central bank has maintained its holdings by reinvesting the money from maturing debt into Treasuries. The Fed will plow back about $216 billion this year and reinvest $197 billion in the next, based on current policy.

While the Fed has said it will look to reduce its holdings eventually by scaling back reinvestments when bonds come due, it hasn’t announced any timetable for doing so.

“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Dov Zigler, a financial markets economist at Bank of Nova Scotia. “What will the Fed’s role be and how large will its participation be in the Treasury market next year and the year after?”

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