Shortly after my piece on Phantom Bonds, Blame Wall Street's Phantom Bonds For The Credit Crisis, posted here on NewGeography.com in November, a friend called from New York to ask if I’d seen the latest news. Bloomberg News reported on December 10 that “…The three-year note auction drew a yield of 1.245 percent, the lowest on record... The three-month bill rate [fell] to minus 0.01 percent yesterday.” The US Treasury is seeing interest rates on its notes that are “the lowest since it started auctioning them in 1929.”
My friend is an intelligent person, a lawyer who managed to accumulate more than $1 million working a 9-to-5 job in a not-for-profit firm and retire in her 50s. Some of her portfolio is in Treasury bonds, so she had a lot of questions. In the course of our conversation, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to explain all she needed to know on the phone, despite her background. I decided to write this short owner’s manual.
Here’s how it works, and how it ties back to the problem of phantom bonds. When the US government needs to raise money it authorizes its agent, the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), to sell securities. The different names for these securities are associated with how long they will remain outstanding, like the term of a loan: bills are up to 1 year, notes are up to 7 years, and anything longer than that is a bond. We’ll just call them bonds to make it easy.
The FRB has relationships with several primary dealers like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley. When notifications are sent out that some bonds will be sold, these primary dealers submit bids in the form of prices. If a financial institution bids $99 for a $100 bond, then that bond will essentially pay - or ‘yield’— roughly 1% from the US Treasury (UST) to its holder. If the investor bids $101 for the $100 bond, then it will pay 1% for the privilege of lending money to the UST; the bond’s ‘yield’ would then be minus 1%. That’s a very good thing if you happen to be the UST, which of course we all are because it’s all taxpayer money.
So— as the prices of bonds rise, the yields fall, and these yields translate into the interest rate that the UST pays to the bondholders in order to borrow the money it needs to fund the budget deficit (and to refinance the existing national debt).
This is all roughly speaking, of course. But the idea is that the interest rates are set based on the prices that are bid in something that’s like a blind auction. The bidders don’t see the other bids, but because there are more bids than there are bonds available, financial institutions will bid the highest prices they can to avoid being shut out altogether. (FRB usually gets bids for 2 to 3 times as many bonds as they have available to sell.) This is good for UST, with a heavy emphasis on the “us”! High bond prices translate into low interest rate loans for UST.
Bonds are funny that way: when a bond’s price goes up, its interest rate goes down, and interest is the cost of borrowing money. So we should like to see Treasury bonds selling at very high prices, and with very low costs to the UST. Unfortunately, all those fails-to-deliver — those phantom bonds — especially over the past few months, had the effect of pushing down the price of bonds by (artificially) increasing the supply. That was keeping the interest rate paid by UST higher than it needed to be over the last year or so.
When bond prices are high — or inching up, as they are now — we all benefit. UST sold $32 billion in 30-day Treasury bills on December 9th at a yield of 0%, meaning that investors are lending UST money for nothing except the promise to return their money without losing any of it. Investors bid for four times as many of these particular Treasury bills as were available for sale. This is as it should be.
As the primary brokers rush to cover their phantoms — those failed to deliver Treasuries of the past — in order to settle their transactions, we’re seeing a surge in the price of treasury securities. The prices of bonds are rising, the yield is falling; the UST is paying lower rates on the money it borrows from investors.
An increase in the price of the new bonds can also mean that the price of existing bonds - those already outstanding - will also increase. The increase in the prices of outstanding bonds will help my friend in New York. A good part of her $1 million retirement portfolio is invested in Treasuries. Treasury bond funds, like Merrill Lynch and Vanguard, are earning 11 to 12 percent for their investors.
These high rates of return in Treasury bond funds won’t last forever, of course. The number of fails-to-deliver in Treasuries is falling quickly, now that the spotlight is on. When settlement is final and on time, then the usual rules of supply and demand will apply. Prices of new bonds and those bonds in the funds (the outstanding bonds) will even out. But the demand for UST bonds will likely stay strong as long as there is global financial turmoil. And that demand turns out to be good for the US (lower interest rates) and good for us (higher prices for the bonds in funds).
People like my friend in New York ask me if Treasury bonds are safe. I tell them: if the US Treasury fails to pay you back, you’ll have bigger problems than a decrease in the value of your portfolio.
Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Her training in finance and economics began with editing briefing documents for the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She worked in operations at depository trust and clearing corporations in San Francisco and New York, including Depository Trust Company, a subsidiary of DTCC; formerly, she was a Senior Research Economist studying capital markets at the Milken Institute. Her PhD in economics is from New York University. In addition to teaching economics and finance at New York University and University of Southern California (Marshall School of Business), Trimbath is co-author of Beyond Junk Bonds: Expanding High Yield Markets.