NEW YORK -- On Sept. 9, as it must frequently do, the U.S. government turned to Wall Street to raise a little cash, and Paul Calvetti bet that demand for $9 billion worth of long-term Treasury bonds would be "huge."
But at 1 p.m., as the auction opened and the numbers began streaming across his flat-panel screens, the head of Treasury trading at Barclays Capital Inc. slumped in his chair. Foreign investors, who had been voraciously buying Treasury bonds, failed to show up. Bond prices cascaded downward, interest rates rose, and in five minutes, Calvetti, 38, who makes money by bidding on bonds at one price and hoping market demand lets him quickly resell them at a profit, had lost $1.5 million.
Paul Calvetti of Barclays Capital lost money recently by betting that foreign investors would snap up long-term U.S. Treasury bonds.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
"It's amazing," he gasped, after the Treasury Department announced that Wall Street traders, not foreigners, had been left to buy virtually the entire auction. "I don't think I've ever seen this before."
The most recent auction of 10-year Treasury notes may have been a fluke, a momentary downturn in one aspect of the massive world market for U.S. government and private-sector bonds, stocks and other securities -- a market so large and diverse that it has long been the world's safe haven. But a rash of new data, including Treasury Department figures released yesterday showing a net sell-off by foreigners of U.S. bonds in August, has stoked debate over whether overseas investors -- private individuals, institutions and government central banks -- are growing dangerously bearish on the U.S. economy.
It is a portentous issue. Foreign governments and individuals hold about half of the $3.7 trillion in outstanding U.S. Treasury bonds, for example, and the government has been heavily dependent on continued overseas bond purchases to finance the roughly $1 billion a day it has to borrow to pay its bills. Foreign lending and investment are also needed to finance the country's roughly $50 billion monthly trade deficit, while foreign capital has been a key prop to U.S. stock prices.
A turn in overseas attitudes toward the United States could ripple deeply through the economy, depressing the market, raising interest rates and pushing down the value of the dollar.
In August, foreign private investors actually sold $4.4 billion more in Treasury bonds and notes than they bought that month, the Treasury Department said yesterday -- the first time in a year that net foreign purchases were negative. That followed a 20 percent decline in July that shrunk net foreign purchases to $18.3 billion.
Bond purchases by foreign central banks also dropped sharply in July, falling 76 percent, to $4.1 billion. A rebound in August brought them back to $19.1 billion. The recovery was timely: Without it, the dollar may have taken a serious hit, said Ashraf Laidi, chief currency analyst at MG Financial Group in New York, who headlined yesterday's client newsletter, "Foreign Central Banks Save Dollar From Disaster."
Foreign purchases of stocks are off as well, going from net purchases of $9.7 billion in July to a net sell-off of $2.1 billion in August. Over the past 12 months, private foreign investors have purchased a net of $17 billion in U.S. stocks, compared with $30 billion in the 12 months before that.
Measuring the combined purchase of stocks, corporate bonds and government debt, overall capital flows into the United States fell in August for the sixth straight month.
Treasury officials said such data should not be overanalyzed. Net purchases of U.S. government securities may have been low in August, at $14 billion, for example. But foreigners still bought more than $807 billion in Treasury bonds, while selling $793 billion, in a month that is usually a slow one in financial markets, said Treasury spokesman Tony Fratto.
"These movements are taking place in a huge market," he said.
But the downward trend in capital coming to the United States is nevertheless worrying, some economists argue, with particular implications for U.S. government debt.
Foreign central banks and individuals rushed to finance U.S. government budget deficits over the past three years, buying $19.2 billion in Treasury bonds in 2001, $118 billion in 2002, and $279 billion in 2003. Lending from foreign governments in particular exploded last year -- to $109 billion, up from $7.1 billion in 2002.