Is The Fed Enabling Foreign Central Banks To Swap Out Their Agency Debt Into Treasuries?

Tyler Durden's picture

Another quite intriguing piece by Chris Martenson "The Shell Game - How The Federal Reserve Is Monetizing Debt" reveals some of the intricacies of the Fed's monetization game and, by digging deeper into the Fed's Custody Account, demonstrates not just how the Federal Reserve is enabling foreigners to swap out of Agencies into Treasuries, but how it is implicitly monetizing a markedly larger portion of debt than is assumed.

For the full details of the article we eagerly refer readers to the original Martenson piece, but in a nutshell here are the components of what Martenson coins "The Fed's Shell Game":

It is no secret that capital flows into the US have declined precipitously, a fact that can be substantiated by TIC flows and by the St. Louis Fed:

Comparing this data with TIC releases, indicates that from January to May the total capital outflows from the U.S. amount to ($314) billion in assets, consisting of central bank purchases of $50 billion, however, matched with private investor dispositions of $364 billion.

Ignoring the implications of what this decline would mean for an economy that relies exclusively on credit growth in order to perpetuate the monetary Ponzi scheme that the US economy has been for years, the simple conclusion here is that a combination of declining consumer credit and foreign interest for US debt purchases has very negative implications for the credit bubble the Federal Reserve is trying to reflate. As for the consequences for the U.S. Dollar as a result of this activity, these have recently become all too clear.

All well and good up to here.

However, what is very troubling is what Martenson points out is the cumulative change in the Fed's Custody Account, which at last check was roughly $2.8 trillion, and represented by Martenson's chart below:

Martenson provides a good explanation of what the function of the Custody Account is:

The Federal Reserve actually holds the bonds (or rather an electronic entry representing the bonds) in a special account for these various central banks.  This is called the "Custody Account" and it holds US debt 'in custody' for various central banks. Think of it as a magnificently vast brokerage/checking account, run by the Federal Reserve for central banks, and you'll have the right image.

Indeed, while TIC may indicate one thing, an observation of the CA indicates that foreigned have in fact been accumulating substantial amounts of US debt since the crisis began in earnest, at a rate that has not budged from its long-term average.

Yet the concerning conclusion by observing the above chart is the dramatic divergence in the CA of Treasury versus Agency holdings. Says Martenson:

Here we note that agency bonds peaked in October of 2008 at nearly a trillion dollars but have declined by $178 billion since then.  Treasuries, on the other hand, have increased by over $500 billion over that same span of time.  A half a trillion dollars!  If you were wondering how the US bond auctions have managed to go so smoothly, here's part of your answer.

At this point it bears pointing out the Fed's balance sheet, where the Fed's large appetite for agencies (including MBS for the purposes of this analysis) is evident. I present the most recent Federal Balance sheet as presented on Zero Hedge a week ago:

May this be an explanation of what is happening:

It would appear that foreign central banks have been swapping agency bonds for Treasury bonds, but that's not how the markets work.  First, they would have to sell those bonds, before they could use the proceeds to buy government debt. So to whom did they sell those Agency bonds in order to afford the Treasury bonds?

And here is where the concept of the appropriately coined Shell Game comes into play:

These are the three critical points to remember as you read further:

  1. The US government has record amounts of Treasuries to sell.
  2. Foreign central banks, which have a big pile of agency bonds in their custody account, would like to help but want to keep things somewhat under the radar to avoid scaring the debt markets.
  3. The Federal Reserve does not want to be seen directly buying US government debt at auctions (and in fact is not permitted to, but many rules have been 'bent' worse during this crisis), because that could upset the whole illusion that there is unlimited demand for US government paper, but it also desperately wants to avoid a failed auction.

For various reasons, the Federal Reserve cannot just up and start buying all the Treasury paper that becomes available in record amounts, week after week, month after month.

Instead, it uses this three-step shell game to hide what it is doing under a layer of complexity:

Shell #1:  Foreign central banks sell agency debt out of the custody account.

Shell #2:  The Federal Reserve buys those agency bonds with money created out of thin air.

Shell #3:  Foreign central banks use that very same money to buy Treasuries at the next government auction.

The question arises, where are the agencies that the Fed is purchasing at such as gluttonous pace coming from? Absent an audit of the Fed, one can merely speculate, but likely is one of the primary motivations for the Federal Reserve Chairman and the Secretary of the Treasury to claim that any additional openness into the activities of the Fed would be "problematic to the country."

Would this "behind the scenes" rotation endorsed by the Fed, whereby the Custody Account is the middleman for Foreign-Fed transactions, be the primary reason for an apparently unwavering indirect interest in US Treasuries?

As Martenson concludes:

The Federal Reserve has effectively been monetizing far more US government debt than has openly been revealed, by cleverly enabling foreign central banks to swap their agency debt for Treasury debt.  This is not a sign of strength and reveals a pattern of trading temporary relief for future difficulties.

This is very nearly the same path that Zimbabwe took, resulting in the complete abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar as a unit of currency.  The difference is in the complexity of the game being played, not the substance of the actions themselves.

The shell game that the Fed is currently playing does not change the basic equation: Money is being printed out of thin air so that it can be used to buy US government debt.

When the full scope of this program is more widely recognized, ever more pressure will fall upon the dollar, as more and more private investors shun the dollar and all dollar-denominated instruments as stores of value and wealth. This will further burden the efforts of the various central banks around the world as they endeavor to meet the vast borrowing desires of the US government.

One possible result of the abandonment of these efforts is a wholesale flight out of the dollar and into other assets.  To US residents, this will be experienced as rapidly rising import costs and increasing costs for all internationally-traded basic commodities, especially food items.  For the rest of the world, the results will range from discomforting to disastrous, depending on their degree of dollar linkage.

As more and more people dig behind the Fed lustrous facade, increasingly more troubling discoveries are made. On one hand you see POMO auctions that repurchase recently auctioned off securities; on the other - potential capital rotation via custodial accounts of which there is no mention in mainstream media venues. If this analysis is in fact correct, the Fed is monetizing not only the Treasuries it purchases via POMO, but effectively also the indirect bidders' treasury interest, which is represented by their rolling out of agencies purchased by the Fed, and the newly raised cash used for UST purchases. Has the Fed essentially monopolized the entire Treasury Auction process?

Whether this speculation of dollar abusive policies by the Federal Reserve, which will stop at nothing, to reinflate the credit bubble and debase dollar-based debt, is in fact true, is questionable. However, definitive answers from Chariman Ben will not be forthcoming until he is forced to show his hand, whether via a legal order such as the recently won Bloomberg lawsuit, or through political means, such as HR 1207 and S 604. In the meantime, it appears the Federal Reserve, whose accountability should be to the entire US population, not just to a select crowd of Wall Street oligarchs, continues to pursue activities that facilitiate at any and all cost the stratification of US society into that minority that will benefit vastly from the Fed's ongoing actions and the significant majority who will see the purchasing power of the paper in their wallets gradually disappear, and effectively put the entire concept of the "American Middle Class" at risk.

For the full link to Chris Martenson's article, please click here.