Pimco moves market with short position on U.S. government debt
As the federal deficit grows, the world’s largest bond trader is betting politicians will fail to prevent a U.S. debt crisis. The Pimco Total Return Fund has taken a short position on U.S. government debt in the form of Treasury bonds. Analysts are saying that Pimco has gotten out of bonds because the company expects that few investors will want Treasuries when the Fed quits buying bonds as quantitative easing ends in June.
Pimco ups the ante on U.S. Treasuries
By taking short positions on U.S. government debt, Pimco is betting that deficit financing will drive interest rates higher and endanger the nation’s triple-A bond rating. To get to a short position on Treasury bonds, Pimco sold borrowed securities on a bet it can buy them back later at a lower price. Pimco head Bill Gross has been warning investors about the risks of U.S. government debt. In February Gross caused a stir by selling all of Pimco’s Treasury holdings. In March he took it further and went net short on Treasury funds, making a $7 billion bet against the securities.
The portion of Pimco’s $236 billion Total Return Fund held in U.S. Treasuries and other long-term government debt dropped from zero in February to negative 3 percent in March. The fund’s cash equivalents rose to 31 percent of the fund’s assets, a $73 billion bet that the good times are about to end in the markets.
Behind Pimco’s short position
Gross has no faith that Congress will be able to solve the deficit problem. In an April Pimco newsletter, he said the U.S. government was “out-Greeking the Greeks.” Greece’s massive government debt forced its leaders to ask for a bailout from the European Union to prevent a global chain reaction of financial failure. In fact, current unfunded government spending on entitlements adds up to five times U.S. GDP, a debt burden much heavier than what sent Greece into crisis. The current budget battle in Congress that targets discretionary spending without addressing politically radioactive entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security has done nothing to bolster Gross’s confidence. “We are smelling $1 trillion deficits as far as the nose can sniff,” he said.
Will market play into Pimco’s hands?
By assuming a short position on U.S. Treasuries, Gross may be using his fund’s ability to move the market to ensure that the bet pays off. Investors have been following Pimco’s lead. As of April 5, speculators went net short on Treasuries for the first time in six weeks, according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. John Carney at CNBC warns investors to regard Gross’s machinations with caution. A move that is universally viewed as the right one by Wall Street often turns out to be “dangerously wrong.” If Treasuries sell off in the near future and Treasury prices fall, expect Gross to bring Pimco back into the bond market — that’s what he’s betting on.