No Free Lunch: Fed Buying Less at Treasury Auctions Thanks to New Facilities

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There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the alphabet soup of new Federal Reserve facilities having hidden costs and generating unintended consequences. The biggest focus of concern is that the assets that the central bank has taken on may come a cropper, leaving the taxpayer holding the bag. Reader Lune has pointed out some examples of unintended consequences of recent initiatives:

1) Congress raises conforming limits on Fannie/Freddie to help unfreeze the mortgage market. Result: agency spreads skyrocket, bringing down Bear and a host of hedge funds. Mortgage markets still remain frozen.

2) Fed opens TSLF to unfreeze mortgage market. Result: Carlyle goes bankrupt as people rapidly arbitrage the difference between holding MBS in firms that can and can’t access the new credit facility. Mortgage markets remain frozen.

Bloomberg provides us with a new sighting. The Fed has to undertake substantial open-market operations to sop up the liquidity that would otherwise be generated by its various new lending facilities. The result? The Fed is buying far fewer short-dated Treasuries at auctions, which is no doubt leading to higher interest rates.

From Bloomberg:

As if a slowing economy, a falling dollar, faster inflation and a credit crunch weren’t enough headaches for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, he now has to worry that the Federal Reserve will undermine the return of the one-year bill.

For the first time since 2001, the government will sell 52- week debt tomorrow, expanding its source of funding as the budget deficit approaches a record. The Fed is selling Treasury bills at the fastest pace since it was founded in 1913 to support bank-lending programs meant to boost confidence in financial markets. The Fed owns $34.3 billion of the securities, down from $267 billion, or 27 percent of the market, in December.

“The Fed took a proportion of Treasury sales so regularly, so often, that we just took it for granted,” said Stephen Van Order, a debt strategist in Bethesda, Maryland, at Calvert Asset Management, which oversees $10 billion in bonds. “You do have to find buyers for the Treasuries that the Fed would have taken in the past. Bills, of course, have been torched by this.”

For every dollar the central bank adds to the banking system under the lending facilities, it withdraws a similar amount to maintain its target rate for overnight loans. The Fed bought bills at all but three of the 992 auctions from August 2001 to last December, according to the Treasury. By comparison, it didn’t purchase bills at 30 of the 66 sales in the five months through April, and it won’t buy any of those sold this week.

Interest rates on six-month Treasuries, the longest maturity bill before the revival of one-year securities, have climbed 95 basis points since mid-March, touching a three-month high of 2.04 percent on May 29. The 4.875 percent Treasury due in May 2009, which was issued a year ago, yielded 2.28 percent at the end of last week….

Now, President George W. Bush’s administration forecasts the deficit will swell to $410 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, just shy of the record $413 billion set in 2004.

On top of that, the dollar has fallen 11 percent against a basket of six major currencies in the past year; inflation is rising at a 3.9 percent rate, almost double its pace in August; and U.S. financial firms have reported $162.5 billion in credit- market losses, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Not only is total issuance increasing, but the percentage of total issuance going to non-Fed investors is increasing as well,” said Michael Pond, an interest-rate strategist in New York at Barclays Capital Inc., one of the 20 primary dealers that trade with the Fed and are required to participate in Treasury auctions. “And that’s really a double whammy.”…

The New York Fed will sell or redeem at least $15 billion in bills, notes or bonds in the next month, said Michael Cloherty, an interest-rate strategist in New York at primary dealer Banc of America Securities LLC. The Fed’s bills comprise 3.3 percent of the $1 trillion market, down from 27 percent in December….

“It’s going to be much more difficult for dealers to make markets if there’s not a backstop source of supply,” said Louis Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP, a Jersey City, New Jersey-based government finance research firm. “They know that if they sell a security that they are unable to source in the market, they can also borrow it from the Fed. But if the Fed doesn’t own it, then they have to be much more careful.”

David Glocke, who manages $33.1 billion of short-term securities at Vanguard Group Inc. in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, doesn’t plan to buy one-year bills for his money-market funds because he expects the Fed to stop lowering borrowing costs after seven cuts since September.

“It’s not a good fit in an environment where interest rates may rise,” he said. Plus, “the fact that the Fed’s been selling a lot of bills would imply maybe that there’s less overall liquidity in the market because the Fed’s reduced positions.”

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  1. 2IfByC

    So something that folks, who play the debt markets, have know for quite awhile- the FED is offsetting loans to banks/financials by draining liquidity- is finally hitting the economic maintream.

    I await, with bated breath, the responses from the less informed who are married to the debt devaluation by “FED printing” thesis.

    Government deficits, enabled by vendor financing, inflate the asset bubbles, and lack of vendor financing, resulting in higher cost of increasing deficits, deflate them.

    The pile of debt remains to be defaulted or redeemed from a shrinking pool of increasingly expensive currency.

  2. Tom Lindmark

    Is this an example of the law of unintended consequences or no good deed goes unpunished or the light at the end of the tunnel is the approaching train?

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