Market Extra: ‘Eye-popping’ borrowing need from U.S. Treasury raises risk of buyers’ fatigue


Just a day after the Treasury Department released a $1 trillion borrowing estimate for the third quarter, questions are being raised about the extent to which foreign and domestic buyers can continue to keep up their demand for U.S. government debt.

Further details about Treasury’s financing need will be released at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. For now, the $1 trillion estimate, the largest ever for the July-September period, has analysts concluding that the U.S. is facing a deteriorating fiscal deficit outlook and continuing pressure to borrow.

At stake for the broader fixed-income market is whether the presence of large ongoing auctions over the coming quarter and beyond will lead to a prolonged period where demand from potential buyers might begin to dry up, Treasury yields edge higher, and the government-debt market returns to some form of illiquidity.

“You can make the argument that since 2020, with the onset of Covid, that Treasury issuances have been met with reasonably good demand,” said Thomas Simons, an economist at Jefferies JEF, -1.75%. “But as we go forward and further away from that period of time, it’s hard to see where that same flow of dollars can come from. We may be looking at recent history and drawing too much of a conclusion that this borrowing need will be easily met.”

Simons said in a phone interview Tuesday that “the risk is that you don’t get continued demand from foreign or domestic buyers of fixed income.” The result could be “six to nine months where the market is fatigued by bigger auction sizes, Treasurys become more and more difficult to trade, there’s a grind higher in yields, and there may be issues with liquidity where markets may not be so deep.” Still, he expects such a period, if there is one, to be less acute than what was seen in the 2013 taper tantrum or last year’s volatility in the U.K. bond market.

On Monday, the Treasury revealed a $1.007 trillion third-quarter borrowing estimate that was $274 billion higher than what it had expected in May. The estimate — which Simons calls “eye-popping” — assumes an end-of-September cash balance of $650 billion, and has gone up partly because of projections for lower receipts and higher outlays, according to Treasury officials.

Monday’s estimate is the largest ever for the third quarter, though not relative to other parts of the year. In May 2020, a few months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., Treasury gave an almost $3 trillion borrowing estimate for the April-June quarter of that year.

For the upcoming fourth quarter, Treasury is now expecting to borrow $852 billion in privately-held net marketable debt, assuming an end-of-December cash balance of $750 billion. According to strategist Jay Barry and others at JPMorgan Chase & Co. JPM, -1.02%, the third- and fourth-quarter estimates “suggest that, at face value, Treasury continues to expect a wider budget deficit” for the 2023 fiscal year.

As of Tuesday, investors appeared to be less focused on the Treasury’s borrowing needs than on signs of continued strength in the U.S. labor market, which raises the prospect of higher-for-longer interest rates. One- TMUBMUSD01Y, 5.400% through 30-year Treasury yields TMUBMUSD30Y, 4.102% were all higher as data showed demand for workers is still strong. Meanwhile, all three major U.S. stock indexes DJIA, +0.06% SPX, -0.32% COMP, -0.40% were mostly lower in morning trading.

According to Simons, who the most likely buyers will be at Treasury’s upcoming auctions will depend on where the department decides to focus its issuances. If the focus is on bills, then money-market mutual funds could “move some cash over,” he said. And if it’s on long-duration coupons, it would be “real money” players such as insurers, pension funds, hedge funds and bond funds — though much will rely on inflows from clients “before demand would pick up.”

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