Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • May 30, 2023

Government Bonds and the Debt Ceiling


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Seth Carpenter, Morgan Stanley's Global Chief Economist. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, today I'll be talking about the U.S. debt ceiling amid recent volatility in the banking sector. It's Tuesday, May 30th at 10 a.m. in New York.

The looming deadline for the U.S. debt ceiling has been a significant concern for markets. In similar standoffs in both 2011 and 2013, the Congress raised the debt limit only at the last minute. The closer we got to the so-called "X-date", the more the Treasury ran down the amount of Treasury bills outstanding to stay under the limit. Bills maturing around the X-date were seen as less desirable and their prices fell a bit, but the scarcity of other bills made their price go up, and therefore, their yield fall. The bills market got dislocated, as we say, but the story did not end with the increase in the debt limit. To restock its account at the Fed, the Treasury issued a lot of Treasury bills, pulling in cash from the market.

One lesson we can take from history is that there is short term volatility, but everything gets resolved in the end. But before we do that, it's worth considering what aspects of the world are different now than back in 2011 or 2013. Since February, the concerns about the banking sector's balance sheet have heightened financial stability questions. Although our baseline view is that the recent developments are more idiosyncratic than systemic, the uncertainty is substantial. That potential fragility is one key difference between now and then.

Another key difference between now and previous episodes is the existence of the Fed's reverse repo facility, the RRP, which now stands at about two and a quarter trillion dollars. As short term interest rates have risen, depositors have taken cash out of banks and shifted it to money funds, and money fund managers have been putting the proceeds into the Fed's RRP facility. This transaction takes reserves away from the banking sector. As we get closer to the X-date and Treasury bills have fallen in yield, money funds have had additional incentive to shift their holdings into the RRP. At a time of volatility in the banking sector, this drain on reserves could amplify the risks.

But Congress raising the debt limit would not be the end of the story. The Treasury will want to restock its account of the Fed from near zero back to its recent target of about $500 billion. And to do so, the Treasury will be issuing at least $500 billion in Treasury bills to replenish its account and maybe as much as $1.2 trillion in the second half of 2023. Some of the bills will go to money funds, and thus the Treasury's account can rise as the RRP facility falls. But whatever amount of the Treasury bills are purchased by investors other than these  money funds, well that will result in yet another drain on bank reserves. The flows are large and will be coming at a time of continued uncertainty for banks balance sheets. Even after the Congress raises the debt limit, it will not quite be the time to breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

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As Congress debates a debt-ceiling deal, investors should prepare for a significant issuance of Treasury bills, which could drain bank reserves at a time when liquidity is already tight.