Who Will Buy the Bonds?

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 |  Includes: IEF, SHY, TLT
by: Cullen Roche

In his latest monthly outlook Bill Gross calls June 30th the equivalent of the market’s D-Day. Of course, that is when the Fed’s QE2 program ends. And Mr. Gross might be right. After all, the Fed has injected our blind school child with the belief that he is going to become the world’s greatest archer. No, the Fed hasn’t changed anything fundamentally about the US economy via its purchase of long-term bonds. In fact, given the drop in housing prices, surge in commodity prices, billions reallocated due to gasoline prices, surging mortgage costs, continued lack of borrowing, etc., you could actually make the argument that this program has been counterproductive.

The one thing it has done is boost risk assets and give market speculators an almost Superman-like feel. Our poor little archer is convinced that Papa Fed has given him superhuman powers. I guess the end of QE2 can be seen as their Kryptonite and our blind school child is still…blind.

But that is not what Bill Gross is worried about. No, he is concerned that the US government might not be able to “fund” itself when QE2 ends. That is to say that QE2 filled some void that wasn’t going to be there. Naturally, he doesn’t explain how the lack of QE2 would have resulted in its own D-Day (because it wouldn’t have – the Federal government would have continued spending with or without QE2), but the truth doesn’t make for nearly as interesting story telling. He says:

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?

Click to enlarge

I don’t know. Reserve surplus sovereigns are likely good for their standard $500 billion annually but the banks are now making loans instead of buying Treasuries, and bond funds are not receiving generous inflows like they were as late as November of 2010. Who’s left? Well, let me not go too far. Temporary voids in demand are not exactly a buyers’ strike. Someone will buy them, and we at PIMCO may even be among them.

Yes, you will buy them. And so will the rest of America because no matter what the Fed does they cannot eliminate the public’s desire to net save. They can make other assets less attractive on a relative basis, but they cannot eliminate a savers desire to net save. And during a balance sheet recession that desire to save is quite high. Luckily, the Federal government is running a 10% budget deficit so the private sector is able to save in excess of 7% of GDP (we are running a -3% Current Account (CA) deficit so the math can be no other way). Naturally, some of this savings is flowing into government bonds. But that doesn’t mean it is funding anything. Not even close. As a monopoly supplier of its own currency, the USA can never “run out” of the money which it alone produces. It requires no funding source for this spending even though Congress mandates bond issuance and taxes are seen as some sort of funding source.

If one were to actually review the bond auction data you can see this for yourself. Where will the buyers come from? They will come from the same place they always come from. Although he acknowledges that some of these buyers are foreign governments he appears oblivious to the simple reality of the current account (CA) deficit. Those dollars may leave our shores, but they come back in the form of UST purchases. The alternative is for these foreign nations to purchase other dollar denominated goods. If you recall, most foreign governments have a pretty poor record of buying our resources, ports or oil companies. So what do they do? They buy the safest yielding paper on the planet – UST’s. But that doesn’t mean we need them to buy our paper. If China wants to accept these pieces of paper with old dead white men on them and let them sit on their vault floors then so be it. It is their lost income. We could really care less. We will keep sending them pieces of paper and we will keep receiving real goods and services in exchange.

But most importantly, the buyers can always be in the form of the Primary Dealers as they execute their reserve drain. The Dealers are required to make a market in government bonds. And so long as reserve forecasters don’t lose track of a few trillion dollars in the banking system there is no reason to ever believe that bond auctions will fail. If you study the bond auction results you can actually see this for yourself. The PDs can always take down the entire bond auction. That’s not a coincidence. It is designed that way. So, who will be the buyers? Assuming we continue running a current account deficit (check), US consumers continue their desire to save (check) and PDs don’t break their contract with the government to make a market in government bonds (check) there will no concern about bond auctions failing after June 30th.

Markets may have another problem, however (if falling asset prices can be described as a “problem”). The markets, after months of being pampered, have to deal with Papa Fed taking the sucker out of their mouth in June. What will happen after the end of QE2? Who knows, but like Mr. Gross I doubt too many investors are going to be sitting around waiting to find out….