If you’ve been paying attention to recent U.S. Treasury bond/note auctions, you’ve probably noticed that the amount of debt offered at these auctions is growing significantly. This is a direct result of our Federal Government’s spending on the numerous stimulus and bailout packages. To put the amount of debt in perspective – a year ago the U.S. would auction anywhere from $5 to $15 billion a week (on average). Last week the U.S. auctioned over $230 billion in Treasury bonds/notes.
Although our leaders in Washington act as though they have a blank check – it’s easy to see the repercussions of what they’re doing. The growing deficits are requiring the Treasury to auction more and more debt. The question becomes – at what point do we hold an auction where no one shows up to buy? As you’ve seen me say before – I (and others) believe this is already happening to some degree.
You have to ask yourself – why all the secrecy? Why do they need to support our Treasury auctions? What happens if they stop supporting Treasury auctions?
The answers will lead you to one unpleasant conclusion – U.S. debt creation is unsustainable.
John – August 5, 2009
The Shell Game – How the Federal Reserve is Monetizing Debt
• The Federal Reserve and the federal government are attempting to “plug the gap” caused by a slowdown of private credit/debt creation.
• Non-US demand for the dollar must remain high, or the dollar will fall.
• Demand for US assets is in negative territory for 2009
• The TIC report and Federal Reserve Custody Account are reviewed and compared
• The Federal Reserve has effectively been monetizing US government debt by cleverly enabling foreign central banks to swap their Agency debt for Treasury debt.
• The shell game that the Fed is currently playing obscures the fact that money is being printed out of thin air and used to buy US government debt.
The Federal Reserve is monetizing US Treasury debt and is doing so openly, both through its $300 billion commitment to buy Treasuries and by engaging in a sleight of hand maneuver that would make a street hustler from Brooklyn blush.
Replacing private credit with public credit
What we see here is federal debt (bottom chart) exploding at a nearly 30% yr/yr rate of change in response to a collapse in corporate and consumer borrowing (top charts).
What we see here is that from the early 1990’s onward until 2007, foreigners bought progressively more and more US assets and did so by bringing their money to the US and leaving it there. It is only over the past seven months, out of decades, where that process has reversed and become negative. This is a significant event, to say the least.
Of course, I’ve said all this before, and every time we seem to get close, there’s been an upside surprise in store. The forces aligned to prevent a dollar collapse are numerous.
With the exception of the 5-year auction, which mysteriously stank up the joint with a worrisome bid-to-cover ratio well below 2.0 (the bond market behaved poorly upon the release of that news item), the story here is that foreign central banks are buying up vast quantities of Treasury offerings.
Something is not adding up here.
What does such a chart imply? We might wonder what sorts of distortions are created by having such a massive monetary spigot aimed from several central banks towards a single country. We also might question just how sustainable such an arrangement really is. It is a complete mystery how such a chart can display nary a wiggle, despite all that has recently transpired.
This next table showing the yearly changes in the custody account actually surprises me quite a bit.
Despite everything that’s been going on, the custody account is on track to grow by the largest dollar amount on record this year, nearly $500 billion dollars (if the current pace continues). Where is all this money coming from and for how much longer?
Understanding the gap between the TIC and the Custody numbers
One thing you might have noticed is that the TIC report only shows $50 billion in foreign bank inflows for 2009, while the custody account grew by $277 billion.
How is it possible for the TIC report to show smaller inflows than growth in the custody account? We can see that clearly in this table, which compares the two. (Note: These are 12 monthly yr/yr changes, so the numbers will be different than the YTD numbers I just cited):
One explanation is that the custody account, at some $2.7 trillion dollars, is accumulating a lot of interest. If those interest payments are not “sent home” and remain in the account, then the account will grow by enough to more or less explain the difference. For example, the $135 billion difference shown above could be generated by a 5% return to the custody account, which is not an unthinkable rate of interest for that account.
International check kiting
Some people view the custody account as nothing more than an elaborate version of check kiting, played at the central banking level.
An illegal scheme whereby a false line of credit is established by the exchanging of worthless checks between two banks. For instance, a “check kiter” might have empty checking accounts at two different banks, A and B. The kiter writes a check for $50,000 on the Bank A account and deposits it in the Bank B account. If the kiter has good credit at Bank B, he will be able to draw funds against the deposited check before it clears, i.e., is forwarded to Bank A for payment and paid by Bank A. Since the clearing process usually takes a few days, the kiter can use the $50,000 for a few days, and then deposit it in the Bank A account before the $50,000 check drawn on that account clears.
In this game, Central Bank A prints up a bunch of money and buys the debt of Country B. Then the central bank of Country B prints up a bunch of money and buys the debt of Country A.
Both enjoy the appearance of strong demand for their debt, both governments get money to use, and nobody is the wiser. Except that the world’s total stock of central bank reserves keep on growing and growing and growing, as reflected in the custody account, which will someday result in thoroughly unserviceable amounts of debt, an unmanageable flood of money, or both.
If this strikes you as a scam, congratulations; you get it.
If that was all there was to the story, then it would be far less interesting than it actually is. When we dig into the custody account data, we find that the total picture is hiding something quite extraordinary. Even as the total custody account has been growing steadily and faithfully, the composition of that account has been changing dramatically.
Here we note that agency bonds peaked in October of 2008 at nearly a trillion dollars but have declined by $178 billion since then. Treasuries, on the other hand, have increased by over $500 billion over that same span of time. A half a trillion dollars! If you were wondering how the US bond auctions have managed to go so smoothly, here’s part of your answer.
What is going on here? How is it possible that central banks are buying so many Treasury bonds, at the fastest rate of accumulation on record?
It would appear that foreign central banks have been swapping agency bonds for Treasury bonds, but that’s not how the markets work. First, they would have to sell those bonds, before they could use the proceeds to buy government debt. So to whom did they sell those Agency bonds in order to afford the Treasury bonds?
Here we might recall that the Federal Reserve has been buying agency bonds by the hundreds of billions.
The shell game
Have you ever seen a sidewalk magician run the shell game, where a pebble under a shell is magically shuffled around – now you see it under this shell, now you see it under that shell, now it disappears completely – or does it? The more it moves around, the more confused you get. If you can only figure out which shell the pebble is hidden under, you win! But where is the pebble? The point of the game, from the perspective of the street hustler, is to use complexity of motion to confuse the mark.
These are the three critical points to remember as you read further:
1. The US government has record amounts of Treasuries to sell.
2. Foreign central banks, which have a big pile of agency bonds in their custody account, would like to help but want to keep things somewhat under the radar to avoid scaring the debt markets.
3. The Federal Reserve does not want to be seen directly buying US government debt at auctions, because that could upset the whole illusion that there is unlimited demand for US government paper, but it also desperately wants to avoid a failed auction.
For various reasons, the Federal Reserve cannot just up and start buying all the Treasury paper that becomes available in record amounts, week after week, month after month.
Instead, it uses this three-step shell game to hide what it is doing under a layer of complexity:
Shell #1: Foreign central banks sell agency debt out of the custody account.
Shell #2: The Federal Reserve buys those agency bonds with money created out of thin air.
Shell #3: Foreign central banks use that very same money to buy Treasuries at the next government auction.
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, SHUFFLE, shuffle! Confused yet?
Don’t be. If we remove the extraneous motion from this strange act, we find that the Federal Reserve is effectively buying government debt at auction. This is exactly, precisely what Zimbabwe did, but with one more step involved, introducing just enough complexity to keep the entire game mostly, but not completely, hidden from sight. They can scramble the shells all they want, but the pebble is still there somewhere – the pebble being the fact that the Fed is creating money to fund the purchase of US debt.
At the time, the Federal Reserve program to purchase agency bonds was described like this:
Fed to Pump $1.2 Trillion Into Markets
Greatly Expanded Purchases Are Designed to Lower Interest Rates, Stimulate Borrowing
The Federal Reserve yesterday escalated its massive campaign to stabilize the economy, saying it would flood the financial system with an additional $1.2 trillion.
In its statement yesterday, the Fed said it will increase its purchases of mortgage-backed securities by $750 billion, on top of $500 billion previously announced, and double, to $200 billion, its purchases of [Agency] debt in housing-finance firms such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
While “stimulating borrowing,” “stabilizing the economy,” and “lowering interest rates” are laudable goals, the primary goal of the program seems to have been something else entirely – to assure plentiful funds for the massive US Treasury auctions coming due. I saw nothing in any article I read about this program that even suggested that one of the goals was to allow foreign central banks to effectively swap their agency debt for US government debt using money printed from thin air. But that’s clearly one of the outcomes.
The Federal Reserve, for its part, has been quite open about these purchases of Agency debt. It even provides an excellent website with nice graphics, allowing us to track the purchase program.
However, this openness only extends to the amounts themselves, not the source(s) of those Agency bonds. This is, in my mind, yet another reason the Fed desperately wishes to avoid an audit. The results would expose the game for what it is.
As we can see in the above chart, the Fed has purchased more than $640 billion of Agency bonds, and has promised to buy more in the near future.
As we now know, at least some of that money has been recycled into US government debt, where “indirect bidders” have been snapping up an unusually high proportion of the recent offerings. (Note: The way Indirect bidders are calculated has recently changed, and I am not entirely clear on how much this influences the numbers we now see….I’m working on it).
A fair question to ask here is, “If there are green shoots everywhere and the stock market is racing off to new yearly highs, why is the Fed continuing to pump money into the system at these mind-boggling rates?” One answer could be, “Because things might not be as rosy as they seem.”
The Federal Reserve has effectively been monetizing far more US government debt than has openly been revealed, by cleverly enabling foreign central banks to swap their agency debt for Treasury debt. This is not a sign of strength and reveals a pattern of trading temporary relief for future difficulties.
This is very nearly the same path that Zimbabwe took, resulting in the complete abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar as a unit of currency. The difference is in the complexity of the game being played, not the substance of the actions themselves.
When the full scope of this program is more widely recognized, ever more pressure will fall upon the dollar, as more and more private investors shun the dollar and all dollar-denominated instruments as stores of value and wealth. This will further burden the efforts of the various central banks around the world as they endeavor to meet the vast borrowing desires of the US government.
One possible result of the abandonment of these efforts is a wholesale flight out of the dollar and into other assets. To US residents, this will be experienced as rapidly rising import costs and increasing costs for all internationally-traded basic commodities, especially food items. For the rest of the world, the results will range from discomforting to disastrous, depending on their degree of dollar linkage.
Under these circumstances, “inflation vs. deflation” is not the right frame of reference for understanding the potential impacts. For example, it would be possible for most of the world to experience falling prices, even as the US experiences rapidly rising prices (and hikes in interest rates) as a consequence of a falling dollar. Is this inflation or deflation? Both, or neither? Instead, we might properly view it as a currency crisis, with prices along for the ride.
Further, all efforts to supplant private debt creation with public debts should be met with skepticism, because gigantic programs are no substitute for the collective decisions of tens of millions of individuals and cannot realistically meet millions of individual needs in a timely or appropriate manner.
The shell game that the Fed is currently playing does not change the basic equation: Money is being printed out of thin air so that it can be used to buy US government debt.
My advice is to keep these potential issues and insights in sharp focus, make what moves you can to diversify out of dollars, and be ready to move rapidly with the rest. This game is far from over.