It remains to be seen whether the growing U.S. Department of the Treasury auctions will be a relatively quiet sideshow or eventually take the center stage in the ongoing financial crisis. As the number of potential disaster scenarios continues to shrink, one subject that I see receive surprisingly little play in the blogosphere is one of the few remaining potential disasters: the auction of U.S. debt.
The concern is that as the U.S. debt grows, so does the volume of Treasury debt for each auction. The big fear is that at some point the supply of U.S. debt may begin to outstrip the demand. At the moment, China and Japan account for about 2/3 of all foreign holdings of U.S. Treasuries; any plateau in the demand for U.S. debt from these two nations might necessitate higher interest rates to stimulate demand and could send potentially traumatic shock waves throughout the economy. This is the disaster scenario. So far, I am happy to report, demand for Treasuries has been robust and yields have remained at very low levels.
The U.S. Treasury auctions a mixture of Treasury Bills (with maturities from 4 weeks to 52 weeks), Treasury Notes (from 2 to 10 years) and 30-Year Treasury Bonds. The T-Bills are auctioned on what is largely a weekly cycle, with the typical pattern seeing the 13-week and 26-week T-Bills slotted for Mondays and the 4-week and 52-week T-Bills on Tuesdays. Given the frequency of these T-Bill auctions and the relatively low demand from foreign central banks, the T-Bill auctions are probably the least important auctions in terms of being able to gauge market sentiment and the strength of foreign demand.
The more important auctions are of the Treasury Notes, where the 10-Year Note has become the de-facto benchmark for U.S. long-term debt. Treasury Note auctions are best understood as occurring on a monthly cycle, with the 3-Year and 10-Year Notes typically auctioned on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the second week of each month and the 2-Year, 5-Year and 7-Year Notes typically auctioned off on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays of the last week of each month.
The 30-Year Bond and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) are a much smaller part of the Treasury refunding process and are subjects for another post.
The results of Treasury auctions are announced at 1:00 p.m. ET (see Announcement & Results Press Releases) and contain three particularly important pieces of information:
- Bid-to-cover ratio
- Percentage of indirect bidders
In short, the yield determines the cost of the debt refunding and/or the price sensitivity of the bidders. The bid-to-cover ratio is simply the total dollar amount of the bids tendered by the total amount of the securities being auction and reflects demand relative to supply. Finally, the percentage of indirect bidders is used as a proxy for demand from foreign central banks, as indirect bids are bids of significant size that do not go through the primary dealer community.
Going forward, investors should keep an eye on the Treasury auctions, particularly on the demand for U.S. Treasury Notes. Should yields start rising, bid-to-cover ratios start falling and participation by indirect bidders begin to decline, then we may have the beginnings of a new kind of debt crisis on our hands.
For additional information on Treasury auctions, try:
- Tentative Auction Schedule of U.S. Treasury Securities
- Recent Results for Notes, Bonds and TIPS Auctions
- Today’s Auction Results
- Recent Results for Bill Auctions
- Announcements & Results Press Releases
- Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities
- Who Buys Treasury Securities at Auction?
For some VIX and More posts on TIPS, readers may wish to check out: