US treasury interest rates and (disin|de)flation

This Bloomberg piece from a few days ago caught my eye.  Let me quote a few hefty chunks from the article (highlighting is mine):

Bond investors seeking top-rated securities face fewer alternatives to Treasuries, allowing President Barack Obama to sell unprecedented sums of debt at ever lower rates to finance a $1.47 trillion deficit.

While net issuance of Treasuries will rise by $1.2 trillion this year, the net supply of corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities and debt tied to consumer loans may recede by $1.3 trillion, according to Jeffrey Rosenberg, a fixed-income strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Shrinking credit markets help explain why some Treasury yields are at record lows even after the amount of marketable government debt outstanding increased by 21 percent from a year earlier to $8.18 trillion. Last week, the U.S. government auctioned $34 billion of three-year notes at a yield of 0.844 percent, the lowest ever for that maturity.
[…]
Global demand for long-term U.S. financial assets rose in June from a month earlier as investors abroad bought Treasuries and agency debt and sold stocks, the Treasury Department reported today in Washington. Net buying of long-term equities, notes and bonds totaled $44.4 billion for the month, compared with net purchases of $35.3 billion in May. Foreign holdings of Treasuries rose to $33.3 billion.
[…]
A decline in issuance is expected in other sectors of the fixed-income market. Net issuance of asset-backed securities, after taking into account reinvested coupons, will decline by $684 billion this year, according to Bank of America’s Rosenberg. The supply of residential mortgage-backed securities issued by government-sponsored companies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is projected to be negative $320 billion, while the debt they sell directly will shrink by $164 billion. Investment- grade corporate bonds will decrease $132 billion.

“The constriction in supply is all about deleveraging,” Rosenberg said.
[…]
“There’s been a collapse in both consumer and business credit demand,” said James Kochan, the chief fixed-income strategist at Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Wells Fargo Fund Management, which oversees $179 billion. “To see both categories so weak for such an extended period of time, you’d probably have to go back to the Depression.”

Greg Mankiw is clearly right to say:

“I am neither a supply-side economist nor a demand-side economist. I am a supply-and-demand economist.”

(although I’m not entirely sure about the ideas of Casey Mulligan that he endorses in that post — I do think that there are supply-side issues at work in the economy at large, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that they are the greater fraction of America’s macroeconomic problems, or that demand-side stimulus wouldn’t help even if they were).

When it comes to US treasuries, it’s clear that shifts in both demand and supply are at play.  Treasuries are just one of the investment-grade securities on the market that are, as a first approximation, close substitutes for each other.  While the supply of treasuries is increasing, the supply of investment-grade securities as a whole is shrinking (a sure sign that demand is falling in the broader economy) and the demand curve for those same securities is shifting out (if the quantity is rising and the price is going up and supply is shifting back, then demand must also be shifting out).

Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have been going on for a while about invisible bond market vigilantes, criticising the critics of US fiscal stimulus by pointing out that if there were genuine fears in the market over government debt, then interest rates on the same (which move inversely to bond prices) should be rising, not falling as they have been.  Why the increased demand for treasuries if everyone’s meant to be so afraid of them?

They’re right, of course (as they so often are), but that’s not the whole picture.  In the narrowly-defined treasuries market, the increasing demand for US treasuries is driven not only by the increasing demand in the broader market for investment-grade securities, but also by the contraction of supply in the broader market.

It’s all, in slow motion, the very thing many people were predicting a couple of years ago — the gradual nationalisation of hither-to private debt.  Disinflation (or even deflation) is essentially occurring because the government is not replacing all of the contraction in private credit.

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