February 24, 2024

Nobody wants U.S. Treasury bonds.

Once a symbol of America’s economic might and accepted as a global coin of the realm, they have fallen badly out of favor, with serious consequences for taxpayers, investors, and financial markets.

Elementary economic forces — too much supply and not enough demand — have collided to create the worst stretch for U.S. government bonds since the Civil War. The government keeps borrowing to cover its budget deficits, while once-reliable buyers of that debt, both at home and abroad, have pulled back.

The result: Investors are demanding the steepest yields since 2007. Auctions of fresh bonds that were once routine are now going terribly. And bond portfolios are getting absolutely hammered. The longest-dated Treasury bonds are in a bear market worse than the dot-com bust and almost as bad as 2008.

The government is borrowing more than expected, increasing the supply of Treasurys and dinging their value. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is selling down its own holdings, dumping yet more bonds into a market that doesn’t really want them.

“There’s just a lot less demand than there was even six months ago,” Goldman Sachs’ Jim Esposito said last week. “You can buy a 6-month T-bill that’s yielding north of 5%. Why wouldn’t you buy that instead of a long bond that’s yielding 4¾?”

Already 2.5% of the U.S.’s economic output is going to service its existing debts, a number that some analysts expect to hit 4% by 2030. Already running huge deficits, the only way for Treasury to pay the interest — along with ambitious spending programs like the CHIPS Act and student-loan forgiveness — is to keep borrowing.

But from whom?

China and Japan, once reliable buyers of Treasury bonds, have been selling them to prop up their weakening currencies. A decade ago they held more than 22% of U.S. government bonds; today it’s 7%.

The Ukraine war has dampened demand among Eastern European buyers, said Steve Ricchiuto, the chief U.S. economist at Mizuho. Increasing U.S. oil production means fewer petrodollars in the Middle East to be reinvested through the Treasury market.

U.S. banks, too, are stepping back.

During the pandemic, they parked a flood of new deposits in government bonds because they had nowhere else to put them. Demand for loans was light. Now that deposit glut is easing and businesses are borrowing again.

Plus, many are sitting on the same paper losses on Treasury bonds that brought down Silicon Valley Bank this spring, and are disinclined to load up on more. Bank of America, which has $132 billion of unrealized losses, has sold half its Treasury bonds this year.