As noted by the Wall Street Journal this morning (“U.S., in Nod to Creditors, Is Adding TIPS Issues“), Treasury is issuing more Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). Today’s auction involves $10 billion 10-year notes; one estimate suggest that total TIPS issuance this year will be $80-85 billion. Still small compared to our nation’s overall borrowing needs (somewhere in the $1 trillion range, not including rolling over existing debt), but a real boost to the TIPS world.
As I discussed in two earlier posts (here and here), many observers have recommended that Treasury increase TIPS issuance. The WSJ piece emphasizes one particular set of advocates: our creditors who are beginning to worry about inflation:
TIPS, which account for less than 10% of the $7 trillion Treasury market, offer investors a way to hedge against inflation as their value rises along with the increase in consumer prices. The fixed returns on nominal Treasurys, in contrast, can be eroded over time by inflation, which especially affects long-term bonds.
The small size of the market for inflation-protected securities means many large investors who want to be able to sell easily still prefer other ways to hedge against inflation risk, such as commodities.
But in the past year, China and other large foreign investors have become vocal about their concerns that the large U.S. fiscal deficits and the Federal Reserve’s ultra-loose monetary policy will lead to a spike in inflation. That would hurt the value of their large holdings of nominal Treasurys.
U.S. officials reassured China in late July that the Treasury remained committed to its TIPS program and would take investors’ views into account when drawing up its issuance plans. That pledge was seen as a commitment to increasing TIPS sales.
As you may noticed, the U.S. needs to borrow vast amounts of money. Which raises an interesting question: how should we finance that debt?
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has taken note of this question and has begun a series of reports on debt management. In its first report, released today, the GAO provides a ringing endorsement of inflation-indexed bonds, aka TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities). The title of the report pretty much summarizes its conclusions: “Treasury Inflation Protected Securities Should Play a Heightened Role in Addressing Debt Management Challenges.”
The report provides a nice history of the TIPS program, which dates back to 1997, and the challenges it has faced. The number one challenge? Liquidity. Regular Treasury securities are the most liquid in the world and, as a result, investors are willing to pay a premium to own them. U.S. taxpayers thus benefit from the low interest rates our government has to pay on its debt. Unfortunately, TIPS are much less liquid and thus don’t enjoy the same benefit. GAO thus suggests that actions to improve liquidity (e.g., more frequent auctions) could help bring down interest costs.
GAO also recommends that longer-dated TIPS be issued as the U.S. moves to lengthen the maturity of its debt. As noted in the following chart, the current maturity structure of U.S. debt is heavily skewed to short maturities:
More than $3 trillion of U.S. debt will come due by the end of 2010 alone.
The reliance on short-term debt makes sense when near-term interest rates are incredibly low, as they have been lately. But interest rates will rise again one day (perhaps sooner than many anticipate according to a recent op-ed by Fed Governor Kevin Warsh), and the government should therefore be evaluating how it will lengthen maturities. GAO believes that TIPS should be part of that.