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As credit and equity markets crashed again in November, mounting problems in the US government bond markets went almost unnoticed. There are worrying signs that the treasury market itself, the last haven for risk-averse investors, is breaking down. Deliveries of treasuries failed at an all-time high of $2 trillion, and over periods lasting weeks, starting in October. Helen Avery reports.


The naked truth

THE US TREASURY market, the foundation of government bond and corporate bond markets worldwide, is suffering a crisis of confidence at the worst possible moment. Investors in treasuries are the lenders enabling the US government bail-out of the country’s broken financial institutions. That leaves them financing purchases of equity of volatile and highly questionable worth and backing a ragbag of distressed assets. There are more, presumably, to come. For now, treasury yields are at record lows across the term structure as investors with cash to invest conclude that they can trust no one else with their money. But investors must wonder at what point the expanded supply of government debt and its use will make the borrower inherently less creditworthy.

There is an even more pressing concern for many participants in this increasingly swollen market: the settlement system has broken down. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, fails to deliver among the 17 primary dealers in the US treasury market have rocketed to more than $2 trillion over a period of weeks and still lie above $1.3 trillion. Broker/dealers have stopped delivering bonds. Holders of US treasuries are now scared to lend into the repo market in case their bonds are not returned, and potential buyers sit on the sidelines fearful of handing over their money to a counterparty that at best might not deliver a bond on time, and at worst might go under.

With global stock markets plummeting, investors are still turning to treasuries as a safe haven. But investors might become nervous if something is not done soon to sort out the market’s problems. "As yet investors are still coming in, but in the longer term the worry is the lack of functionality in the treasury market. That could impact investor perception on a longer-term basis," says Mike Pond, US treasury and inflation-linked strategist at Barclays Capital in New York. If investors turn their backs on treasuries, the US government will find it increasingly difficult and expensive to raise money and roll over its maturing debts. Upward pressure on interest rates will occur at a time when the government needs to be loosening monetary policy in order to jump-start a domestic economy that is heading towards a depression.

As a result of fails to deliver, the most transparently priced instrument available now has investors scratching their heads. The natural balance of supply and demand has been altered and the true price of treasuries has become obscured. The effects are being seen across other bond markets. "The TIPS [Treasury Inflation Protected Securities] market is also clearly broken," says Pond. "An obvious trade right now would be to go long TIPS where real yields are high and short the nominal bond in a breakeven inflation trade but hedge funds are fearful that if they go through the repo market the borrow could fail. So we have a situation now in the 10-year TIPS where the market is pricing in zero or negative average inflation for the next 10 years. Inflation has not been that low since the 1930s." Economists also claim that fails have spread across to other bond markets such as municipals, agencies, mortgage-backed and corporates.

Why the Federal Reserve is not urgently considering regulation is bewildering. As yet, the US Treasury has merely asked for market participants to sort out the situation themselves. That might help reduce fails but it will not eliminate them, and in panic periods they will simply creep back up. The global economy has significantly contracted since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which spurred the fails to deliver. More market-shocking events are certain to lie ahead. The solution is simple – delivery needs to be enforced, and liquidity returned. If not, confidence in the US treasury markets will be lost. Loans made using treasuries as collateral will be reconsidered, bond markets priced off treasuries will further dry up and, with equity markets so volatile, central banks and investors will not know where to turn.

Fails to deliver in the treasury markets are not a new phenomenon. There is data for fails for treasuries, agencies and mortgage-backed securities as far back as 1990, says Susanne Trimbath, an economist at STP Advisory Services, and former employee of the Depository Trust Co, a subsidiary of Depository Trust and Clearing Corp.

"Investors are still coming in, but in the longer term the worry is the lack of functionality in the treasury market"

Mike Pond, Barclays Capital

Mike Pond, Barclays Capital
Back then, though, there would be $50 billion of fails in a whole year, she says. That figure has grown enormously. Failures in US treasuries were 8.6% of all treasuries outstanding in the first five months of this year, compared with 1.2% in the first five months of 2007. That has ballooned further over the past three months, hitting more than $2 trillion for almost the entire month of October – more than 20% of the daily trading volume in treasuries.

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