Sunday Musings: Who Will Buy Treasuries When The Fed Doesn’t?

Bill Gross wrote and interesting piece in InvestmentNews titled “Who will buy Treasuries when the Fed doesn’t?” Let’s look at some highlights:

Speaking of investment tips, no clue or outright signal could have been any clearer than the one given in December 2008, labeled “Quantitative Easing.” While the term was new, the intent was obvious: (1) pump public money into the financial system to replace private credit that was being destroyed in the process of deleveraging; (2) lower interest rates on intermediate and long-term mortgages/Treasury bonds and in the process flush money into risk assets – most visibly the stock market; and (3) forecast publically then hope that higher stock prices would lead to a wealth effect, and in turn generate new private sector lending, job creation and a virtuous circle of economic expansion that would heal the near-fatal wounds of Lehman and its aftermath. If that was the game plan, then so far, so good, I’d say. Interest rates are artificially low, stocks have nearly doubled since QE I’s first announcement in December of 2008, and the U.S. economy will likely expand by 4% this year, although a $1.5 trillion budget deficit must share QE’s Oscar for most stimulative government policy of 2009/2010.

Many critics, though, including yours truly, would wonder whether Quantitative Easing policies actually heal, as opposed to cover up, symptoms of an unhealthy economy. They might at the same time ask simplistically whether it is possible to cure a debt crisis with more debt. As I have discussed in numerous Investment Outlooks, the odds of an ultimate QE success seem critically dependent on several criteria: (1) initial sovereign debt levels that are relatively low. Reinhart and Rogoff in their book “This Time Is Different” have suggested an 80–90% of GDP limit to sovereign debt levels before they become counterproductive; (2) the ability of a country to print globally acceptable scrip – especially enhanced if that nation has the reserve currency status now ascribed to the U.S.; and (3) the willingness of creditors to believe in future real growth as a rebalancing solution to current excessive deficits and debt levels.

Most observers would agree with us at PIMCO that QE I and II programs were initiated and employed under the favorable conditions of (1) and (2). The third criterion (3), however, is more problematic. A successful handoff from public to private credit creation has yet to be accomplished, and it is that handoff that ultimately will determine the outlook for real growth and the potential reversal in our astronomical deficits and escalating debt levels. If on June 30, 2011 (the assumed termination date of QE II), the private sector cannot stand on its own two legs – issuing debt at low yields and narrow credit spreads, creating the jobs necessary to reduce unemployment and instilling global confidence in the sanctity and stability of the U.S. dollar – then the QEs will have been a colossal flop. If so, there will be no 15%+ tip for the American economy and its citizen waiters. An inflation-adjusted “negative buck” might be more likely.

Washington, Main Street – and importantly from an investment perspective – Wall Street await the outcome. Because QE has affected not only interest rates but stock prices and all risk spreads, the withdrawal of nearly $1.5 trillion in annualized check writing may have dramatic consequences in the reverse direction. To visualize the gaping hole that the Fed’s void might have, PIMCO has produced a set of three pie charts (see above) that attempt to point out (1) who owns what percentage of the existing stock of Treasuries, (2) who has been buying the annual supply (which closely parallels the Federal deficit) and (3) who might step up to the plate if and when the Fed and its QE bat are retired. The sequential charts 1, 2 and 3 are illuminating, but not necessarily comforting.

What an unbiased observer must admit is that most of the publically issued $9 trillion of Treasury notes and bonds are now in the hands of foreign sovereigns and the Fed (60%) while private market investors such as bond funds, insurance companies and banks are in the (40%) minority. More striking, however, is the evidence in Chart 2 which points out that nearly 70% of the annualized issuance since the beginning of QE II has been purchased by the Fed, with the balance absorbed by those old standbys – the Chinese, Japanese and other reserve surplus sovereigns. Basically, the recent game plan is as simple as the Ohio State Buckeyes’ “three yards and a cloud of dust” in the 1960s. When applied to the Treasury market it translates to this: The Treasury issues bonds and the Fed buys them. What could be simpler, and who’s to worry? This Sammy Scheme as I’ve described it in recent Outlooks is as foolproof as Ponzi and Madoff until… until… well, until it isn’t. Because like at the end of a typical chain letter, the legitimate corollary question is – Who will buy Treasuries when the Fed doesn’t?

Investors should view June 30th, 2011 not as political historians view November 11th, 1918 (Armistice Day – a day of reconciliation and healing) but more like June 6th, 1944 (D-Day – a day fraught with hope for victory, but fueled with immediate uncertainty and fear as to what would happen in the short term). Bond yields and stock prices are resting on an artificial foundation of QE II credit that may or may not lead to a successful private market handoff and stability in currency and financial markets.

[Emphasis added]

Will the real economy, or the real stock market for that matter, please stand up? We have not seen anything in terms of real growth or demand in a couple of years since stimulus became not only the buzzword but also the savior of the day.

While Bill Gross describes the past and current circumstances far better than I ever could, I am just as curious as to what will happen once QE-2 expires. No one has the answer, so we’ll have to wait until June 30, 2011 to find out.

Let’s hope that the Fed in its infinite wisdom does not decide to kick the can the road again via introduction of QE-3. It’s time to face reality no matter what the consequences might be.

About Ulli Niemann

Ulli Niemann is the publisher of "The ETF Bully" and is a Registered Investment Advisor. Learn more
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