Treasury Sell-Off is a China Syndrome

Just looking at the numbers, it appears as if foreign investors are broadly dumping U.S. Treasuries at an unprecedented rate.

On the surface, this is an alarming development, considering that these investors own almost half of the Treasuries outstanding. Their flight could signal a drastic rise in borrowing costs for the world’s biggest economy.

In the year through November, these investors sold 3.3 percent of their U.S. government debt holdings, or a net $201.9 billion, the most ever on record. And it’s easy to think that this was a response to the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, especially because the selling accelerated at the end of the year.

But there’s another big actor involved. While the U.S.’s new unpredictable leader has certainly raised questions at investment firms around the world, the shift in foreign ownership has more to do with China and its ability to steady its economy.

First of all, China and Japan are the two big sellers of U.S. government debt. Japan has been liquidating its assets as it tries to tightly control its bond yields, seemingly at whatever price.

And China has been funneling billions of dollars into its economy to keep it chugging along despite an increasing number of cracks in its credit system and to prevent its currency from depreciating too quickly. Despite all its efforts to prevent money from leaving the nation, capital outflows are continuing.

Other regions, including Ireland and Brazil, have been net buyers recently. While many investors have their eye out for potentially destructive trade policies or geopolitical conflicts, at the end of the day, their goal is to make money. And plenty of investors still see value in Treasuries. For proof, just look at the yield on the 10-year note. It has dropped to 2.4 percent from as high as 2.6 percent in December and is still below its decade-long average.

Trump is making a lot of investors nervous, but so far he’s not the main agent causing foreign investors to flee Treasuries. China is the mover and shaker on this one.

Bloomberg: Lisa Abramowicz & Rani Molla – February 13, 2017

2017-02-13T10:54:36+00:00