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December 18, 2009

October data indicate financial stress continuing to ease

Update: The numbers for T-bills and notes/bonds I am quoting refer to net official purchases only, not total net purchases by foreigners.

Original post:

The October Treasury International Capital (TIC) data, which report on U.S. cross-border financial flows, suggested continued unwinding of a massive flight to quality that took place in financial markets in the second half of 2008. (For a detailed overview of U.S. cross-border financial flows during the recent crisis, see a comprehensive report from the Federal Reserve Board.)

Cross-border private capital flows, which plummeted at the peak of the financial crisis in fall 2008, resumed as risk aversion in financial markets started to abate. On net, foreign private investors have again become buyers of U.S. assets, which has helped to increase the supply of capital in the United States.

Based on the TIC data, it appears that U.S. investors, too, are now channeling their savings abroad by buying foreign bonds and equities. Last fall as the global economy fell into a deep recession, U.S. investors sold, on net, foreign assets and repatriated capital at a record pace, partly offsetting outflows of foreign private capital. In recent months, U.S. investors on net bought foreign equities and bonds as foreign economic growth resumed and conditions improved in financial markets. The renewed purchases of foreign securities by U.S. investors shown in the data, however, represent an outflow of capital from the United States and, all else equal, increased U.S. reliance on foreign financing.

121709

The TIC data also show the easing of financial stress, which is reflected in the recent pick-up in foreign net buying of riskier U.S. assets, such as equities, and an increasing demand for agency bonds, including agency mortgage-backed securities, from foreign private investors. Also, foreign investors are rebalancing their portfolios from U.S. Treasury bills to longer-term Treasury securities.

As the financial crisis intensified in the fourth quarter of last year, foreign official investors bought on net a record $181 billion in Treasury bills while on net they sold $23.4 billion in Treasury bonds and notes. Although emerging markets' official reserves fell in the fourth quarter of 2008 (their central banks were selling dollars to support local currencies), net selling of longer-term Treasuries and a sharp sell-off in agency debt funded a surge in net buying of U.S. Treasury bills, based on the TIC data. Similarly, private investors' net buying of treasury bills soared in the second half of 2008. Buying short-term Treasuries allowed a shift to quality and safety in the most prudent way, leaving open the option to quickly reverse the flow. Now that the crisis has subsided, foreign official investors have tapered their purchases of Treasury bills and have increased their purchases of longer-dated Treasuries while private investors began on net selling Treasury bills in second quarter of this year.

Despite all these improvements, the influence of the financial crisis is still evident in the data that show persistent net selling of agency bonds by foreign official investors that began last year as well as continued net selling of long-term corporate debt by foreign private investors.

By Galina Alexeenko, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's research department