A month ago we reported that according to much delayed TIC data, China had just dumped the second-largest amount of US Treasurys in history. The problem, of course, with this data is that it is stale and very backward looking. For a much better, and up to date, indicator of what foreigners are doing with US Treasurys in near real time, the bond watchers keep track of a less known data series, called "Treasury Securities Held in Custody for Foreign Official and International Accounts" which as the name implies shows what foreigners are doing with their Treasury securities held in custody by the Fed on a weekly basis. So here it goes: in the just reported latest data, for the week ended March 12, Treasurys held in custody by the Fed dropped to $2.855 trillion: a drop of $104.5 billion. This was the biggest drop of Treasurys held by the Fed on record, i.e., foreigners were really busy selling.
This brings the total Treasury holdings in custody at the Fed to levels not seen since December 2012, a period during which the Fed alone has monetized well over $1 trillion in US paper.
So is this the proverbial beginning of foreign dumping of US paper? Could Russia simply have designated a different custodian of its holdings? No, because as of most recently it owned $139 billion in US paper, or well above the number "sold" and a custodial reallocation would mean all holdings are moved, not just a portion. For another view, here is what the bond experts at Stone McCarthy had to say:
We don't have a ready explanation for the plunge in custody account holdings. One thing that is striking about the drop is that the last several days was not a period of heavy market buzz about "central bank selling" of Treasuries, at least to the best of our knowledge. China and Japan are by far the largest holders of Treasuries, with holdings of $1.269 trillion and $1.183 trillion in holdings at the end of December, respectively. China's holdings are more skewed to central bank holdings. Selling of Treasuries would appear to be at odds with China's recent effort to depreciate its currency, although on March 5 and 6 there was a brief correction in that trend.
As for the timing:
... the Wednesday-to-Wednesday decline was much larger than the weekly average decline in Treasury holdings of $46.6 billion. That implies that the plunge in Treasuries occurred later in week rather than earlier.
Some further thoughts from SocGen:
Weekly data from the Fed for US Treasury securities held in custody on behalf of foreign institutions and central banks fell sharply over the past week and may offer a plausible explanation as to why the USD has been offered pretty much all week against its major counterparts. EUR/USD in particular has stayed strongly bid since last week’s council meeting (to the bemusement of the ECB) and touched a high of 1.3967 yesterday before easing back after the exchange rate comments from president Draghi. The reduced appetite for USTs and strong demand for EUR debt and equity securities underlines the difficulties the ECB is encountering to stop the strong EUR from reducing inflation expectations in the euro area.
Foreign holdings of US government securities held at the Fed dropped by a whopping $104.5bn in the week to Wednesday 12 March according to the data published overnight (see chart below). This marks the biggest single weekly fall on record and compares with just a $13.5bn drop the previous week and a 4-week average fall of $1.5bn. The previous largest fall came in mid-2013 (26 June, a week after the FOMC meeting) when holdings fell by $32.4bn. The selling over the last week coincides with the latest US employment statistics, a run of weak data from China and the escalation of the situation in Crimea and Ukraine.
Russia has threatened to respond with sanctions of its own should economic measures be imposed by the EU and the US after the referendum in Crimea this weekend. Russia currently holds $138.6bn of USTs (based on December data) and the country has been a net seller for a combined $11.3bn of USTs over the last two months for when data is available. China sold $47.8bn alone in December. The latest Treasury International Capital (TIC) data for January are only due next week so we won’t find out officially until May how much Russia’s US government debt holdings dropped in March.
So either China selling TSYs and buying EURs to make European import power stronger, if not so much its exports (much to Draghi's ongoing horror). Or Russia, which may be dumping USTs to support the ruble... Or dumping just because.