World Economy

Russia Slashes US Treasury Holdings by Almost 50%

In all, foreigners held $6.17 trillion of the total $14.84 trillion of treasury debt outstanding through April
The treasury department in Washington The treasury department in Washington

Foreign governments pulled back their purchases of longer-term US debt as trade tensions escalated around the world.

The declines are relatively small so far for notes and bonds—just shy of $5 billion each for March and April, the most recent months for which treasury data are available—but it signals a potentially troubling trend, CNBC reported.

"We need all the help we can get in the search for buyers of US Treasuries due to the enormous supply coming our way in the next few years," Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group, said in a note. "Our stance on trade with our trading partners could very well play into this in coming months and quarters, especially with China, the largest owner of US Treasuries."

President Donald Trump's administration has been in a tit-for-tat battle of tariff threats with multiple US trading partners, particularly China.

In addition, Trump has threatened to pull out of multinational trade agreements like NAFTA, and has slapped tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

One of the most glaring declines has come from Russia, which sliced its holdings of US debt nearly in half from March to April, from $96.1 billion to $48.7 billion. Russia's Treasury ownership peaked at $108.7 billion in May 2017.

In all, foreigners held $6.17 trillion of the total $14.84 trillion of treasury debt outstanding through April. The national debt including intra-governmental holdings has swelled to more than $21 trillion.

Russia Not Alone

Russia isn't the only country cutting back in its US holdings. China, the largest owner of US debt, reduced its level by $5.8 billion in April to $1.18 trillion, while Japan, the second largest, cut its holdings by $12.3 billion to $1.03 trillion. Ireland, Britain and Switzerland also pulled back.

Turkey, which has been repatriating its gold from the US, has almost halved its US Treasury holdings from almost $62 billion in November to $38.2 billion in April.

Non-EU member Norway has cut its holding by 40% since September 2017, from $64.1 billion to $39.3 billion in April.

Finding buyers for government debt has become increasingly important since the Federal Reserve halted its bond-buying program in October 2016 after swelling its holdings to more than $4.2 trillion.

Since October 2017, the central bank has been allowing a set level of proceeds it gets from those debt instruments to run off each month, while continuing to reinvest the rest. The fed's portfolio of treasurys and mortgage-backed securities since then has declined by $116 billion, or 2.8%, while foreign holdings also have fallen off by 2.5%.

With the budget deficit expected to rise in coming years—passing $1 trillion in 2020, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates—the government has been issuing debt heavily. The total for 2018 has been $443.7 billion, a nearly nine-fold increase from the same period a year ago and a 139% jump from 2016, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

At the same time, interest rates have been rising. The benchmark 10-year note yield is about three-quarters of a point higher than where it was a year ago. Through the first eight months of the current fiscal year, the US has paid $319.3 billion in interest on its debt.

Dumping to Continue

Moscow will continue dumping US debt, according to analysts who spoke to RT. Russia had only $48.7 billion investment in American debt, dropping from 16th to the 22nd place of major foreign holders of US T-bills. Russia now holds less US debt than the small island nation of Bermuda.

The sell-off should continue, since Russia and the US are barely trade partners, and Washington can always impose sanctions on the Russian holdings of its debt, Vladimir Rojankovski, investment analyst at Global FX said in a comment e-mailed to RT.

“In the era of sanctions investments in US Treasuries sooner or later can fall under sanctions. The volume of foreign trade with the US has only 3.5% share in Russia’s foreign trade.

Countries usually hold bonds of their trading partners, so it is unreasonable to hold more than 10% of Russia’s foreign reserves in US Treasurys,” he said. Russian foreign reserves were $456 billion in May.

Since 2011, Russia has cut its holdings of US Treasurys by more than two-thirds, from over $150 billion to less than $50 billion at present.

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