Taking their chances on the wall of debt

This morning’s surprise news is that, after last night’s fiasco in which House Speaker John Boehner could not round up enough votes for his own deficit reduction plan, 10-year Treasury bond prices are not only not down, they’re actually up, by a good bit. Interest rates on Treasuries, which move in the opposite direction as T-bond prices, are down 10 basis points to 2.84% (as of 11:14 a.m.). What gives?

Well, for one, the bond market may not have been expecting much from Boehner. The media had already been saying that he’s a much-weakened House Speaker, after watching his failure to rein in his Tea Party faithless. And any House Republican plan would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate anyway.

Another possibility is that as it becomes more likely that the government bumps up against the current debt ceiling on Aug. 2, that counterintuitively, T-bonds might actually be seen as safer, as Chris Isidore writes in CNNMoney. Why? Because the single biggest actor on the U.S. economic stage, the federal government, would be officially dysfunctional, even more so than it is now. Today through Aug. 1, at least, the government can meet all of its financial obligations. If Aug. 2 is indeed D-Day, then on Aug. 2 the government becomes a deadbeat, at least to somebody. And quite likely, it would not be T-bondholders. This assumes that (1) the government would still be allowed to issue more debt in order to pay off its maturing debt and (2) the Treasury would prioritize the interest on that maturing debt above its other obligations. As notes on NPR this morning, most commentators seem to agree that it is in the national interest to not stiff any of our bondholders, as an actual default would surely cause interest rates to skyrocket. If Aug. 2 is the beginning of Treasury triage time, then the government would more likely stiff someone else, like government employees (please please start with members of Congress!) and government claimants who lack political clout (i.e., not seniors or the military). This creates a lot of chaos, as people don’t know when they’ll be paid, which makes them less likely to spend or repay money and creates pressure on credit markets. In sum, the market reaction may just be the usual “flight to safety” that occurs when markets think conditions are about to get worse and also more chaotic. This would be consistent with the beating that stocks have been taking lately.

It may also be that the bond market is reacting to other news, like the dreadful GDP figures that just came out today. Real GDP in the second quarter grew just 1.3% (worse than the consensus forecast of 1.8%), and first quarter growth was revised drastically downward to 0.4% (from 1.9%). These numbers are “growth recession” territory (where the economy grows but not fast enough to generate enough jobs to keep unemployment from rising), consistent with the rise in unemployment (from 9.0% to 9.2%) over the last few months. As with the debt-ceiling brinkmanship, these new signs of economic weakness are a plausible reason to pull money out of stocks and put it into Treasury bonds.

But why Treasury bonds, you ask, and not another safe haven? The simple answer seems to be that there are woefully few alternatives. As Isidore puts it:

‘U.S. Treasuries are such a massive market — about $9.8 trillion — that they dwarf the markets of other so-called “safe havens” such as gold, top-rated corporate debt or the bonds of other countries with AAA ratings.’

So worldwide investors still like their chances on the wall of debt that is U.S. Treasuries.

P.S. Richard Thompson’s duet partner here is not Linda Thompson, but Christine Collister.

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2 Responses to “Taking their chances on the wall of debt”

  1. Laurence Says:

    Gotta agree with you on this one. But don’t forget that for foreign central banks profit is not usually the main motivator. They may be willing to accept losses if it is politically expedient to buy treasuries. For example, the dollar index was down today and our trade partners (Brazil comes to mind) are not happy about it. Exchanging local currency for US bonds is one way to buoy the dollar.

  2. Mark Eanes Says:

    I’m most shocked that they moved more than a little bit, regardless of the direction. T-Bonds seem to be relatively stable regardless of the market. A small comfort for conservative investors anyway. However, at this time, if Treasury securities prices were to go down significantly, the money stuffed under our mattresses may not do us much good, unless they are Reals and are we are in Sao Paulo.

    I agree that, if the worst case scenario comes true, Treasury security holders will at least be paid in the short run and that the little man will get stiffed first. Another case of the tea party biting their nose to spite their face.

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