Monday, December 17, 2007

A Little Acid Test for Fed Liquidity

If investors think the Fed buying up a few billion of Treasury and agency debt means a hill of beans, they might do well to remember that the U.S. government is running up annual deficits in the hundreds of billions. In fact, the U.S. Treasury will float tens of billions of new debt in December alone (most of which will be sopped up by foreigners, who have increased their holdings of Treasuries by well over $200 billion in the past year). This will be mixed in with refinancings.

Last week, for example, the Treasury auctioned $21 billion in 3-month bills and $20 billion in 6-month bills. In doing so, the Treasury offset every bit of the Federal Reserve's actions this week, even if it turns out that the $40 billion “term auction facility” represents new liquidity and not just rollovers. Why aren't investors just as interested in that? When the Fed does open market operations, all it's doing is buying up (temporarily or permanently) a tiny fraction of U.S. Treasury debt and replacing it with currency and bank reserves. But every time the Federal government issues more debt to finance its deficits, the new issuance cancels out any beneficial increase in liquidity the Fed could possibly provide.

So it's difficult to understand why investors would get all excited about the Fed temporarily buying up a few billion in government securities, when we've got a Federal government that's simultaneously and permanently issuing and then constantly rolling over many, many times that amount. It‘s an escape into dreamland to believe that Fed actions have any chance at all of providing more “liquidity” when the Federal government's deficits suck up in a matter of weeks every bit of liquidity that the Fed has provided in a year. These Fed actions are nothing but marginal tinkering around the edges of the global financial system, and investors are starting to catch on.