During financial crises like in 2008, US Treasuries are typically viewed as the most liquid and safe assets in the world, reflected by their rising prices when markets rush to these relatively secure assets. However, this did not occur in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. True to script, stock prices fell dramatically, the VIX index of implied stock return volatility spiked, credit spreads widened, and the dollar appreciated. In sharp contrast to previous crisis episodes, though, prices of long-term Treasury securities fell sharply.
What happened? The authors review empirical evidence of investor flows and build a model to shed light on the mechanism behind this episode. Their model introduces repo financing as a key part of dealers’ intermediation activities, through which levered investors obtain funding from dealers who are subject to a balance sheet constraint–the Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR)–due to regulation reforms since the 2007–09 crisis. Consistent with their model, the spread between the Treasury yield and overnight-index swap rate (OIS) and the spread between dealers’ reverse repo and repo rates are both highly positive in the COVID-19 crisis, and both greatly negative in the 2007–09 financial crisis.
The observed movements in Treasury yields in March 2020 can be rationalized as a consequence of selling pressure that originated from large holders of US Treasuries interacting with intermediation frictions, including regulatory constraints such as the SLR. Evidently, the current institutional environment in the Treasury market is such that it cannot absorb large selling pressure without substantial price dislocations, or intervention by the Federal Reserve as the market maker of last resort. The safe asset status of US Treasuries’ should not be taken for granted.