High foreign net purchases of U.S. assets in July, good for REITs

Market Realist

Foreign demand for U.S. assets significantly affects interest rates

The U.S. Treasury measures foreign purchases of U.S. financial assets through the Treasury International Capital (TIC) report. Foreign demand for U.S. financial assets helped push U.S. interest rates to record lows last summer. Fears of a European contagion fed a flight to quality, which pushed the ten-year yield down to below 1.4%. While that sort of yield is certainly paltry versus what we’ve historically been able to earn on Treasuries, compared to the rest of the world, 1.4% was competitive. Now, as the Fed threatens to end asset purchases (quantitative easing), foreign investors have been getting out of the way—even though the Fed has said it doesn’t intend to sell its holdings and will even re-invest maturing securities back into the market.

(Read more: Annaly Capital Management portfolio yield continues to fall)

The other driver of foreign purchases of U.S. assets is the trade deficit. When our trading partners receive dollars in exchange for their goods, they have two choices: they can use the dollars to purchase U.S. goods and services, or they can use the dollars to purchase U.S. financial assets. Large export-driven economies like China are more apt to run large trade surpluses, which means they’re forced to hold a lot of U.S. assets.

For the first time since January, foreigners are net buyers of U.S. assets

Up until recently, foreigners have been net sellers of U.S. financial assets. Much of this trend was due to economic stability, or what’s referred to as the “risk on” trade. During periods of crisis, like the European crisis, or the Asian Crisis, foreigners seek the safety (albeit low return) of U.S. Treasuries. When things are calm, they tend to sell them to purchase riskier (and higher returning) securities. They haven’t been net buyers since January, when they purchased a net $25 billion. Last month, they purchased 47.7 billion net. Both purchases and sales declined—but sales fell more.

To put these numbers in perspective, the Fed purchases $45 billion worth of Treasuries a month. So while foreigners do have an impact, the Fed is the 800-pound gorilla in the U.S. sovereign debt market. That said, if the Fed stops purchasing mortgage-backed securities and foreign investors continue to sell, that leaves de-leveraging mortgage REITs to pick up the slack. This could mean higher mortgage rates going forward—something the Fed is almost certainly going to monitor closely.

(Read more: Mortgage REITs get crushed as rates increase)

Implications for mortgage REITs

The absolute level of interest rates is a prime driver of mortgage REITs like American Capital Agency (AGNC), Annaly Capital (NLY), MFA Financial (MFA), Hatteras (HTS), or Capstead (CMO). Mortgage-backed securities closely track the level of long-term Treasuries—although they’re not quite as sensitive.

Falling mortgage-backed security prices hit mortgage REIT book values across the board. Nearly every REIT experienced a sizeable drop in book value. The differences came between those that were highly leveraged and those with shorter duration. If foreign investors return to selling mortgage-backed securities, the REITs will feel the pain.

(Read more: Government mortgage-backed securities rally in anticipation of more quantitative easing)

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