I think that the buyers of the debt could be US banks for quite some time. The next graph shows commercial and industrial loans at US banks falling precipitously. Banks have (correctly) tightened lending standards, but that means that small and medium-sized businesses, which account for over 85% of all jobs, have been cut off from the life blood of growth. Is it any wonder they are cutting jobs at a prodigious rate?
The next graph shows bank credit (of all types), going back to 1974. Notice that even during recessions (gray shaded areas) bank lending either grows or at the most goes flat. But now we are experiencing something new: bank lending is falling. Notice the sharp increase in lending in 2008 as corporations decided to draw down their banks' lines of credit, afraid that the banks might cut back. And with good reason, as banks did exactly that.
So where do banks put their cash and reserves they are not lending? At the Fed and in Treasury debt. If you can leverage capital at ten to one (as banks can) and if you get 2% (for longer-term debt) and if you only have costs of, say, 50 basis points (or 0.5%), you can make a return on equity of 15% with no risk.
And that is what we are seeing. Banks are taking the money the Fed is printing and the government is giving them and putting it back at the Fed. Bank reserves at the Fed are exploding. And they are likely to continue to do so, since bank balance sheets are still deteriorating, especially at smaller and regional banks exposed to commercial real estate loans. Banks own 45% of commercial real estate loans, compared to only 21% of single-family loans. Banks (in general) are going to have to raise capital and reduce their loan portfolios in order to keep within the guidelines for adequate reserve capital. Small wonder that my friend Chris Whalen (one of the real experts on banks) thinks we will see over 400 banks fail in this cycle.
One quick chart to further highlight the problem that banks are facing. I have been writing for several years that commercial real estate loans will be the next shoe to drop. Moody's calculates that commercial real estate prices have dropped 30%. Over a trillion dollars in commercial real estate loans are coming due in the next few years. Banks are going to continue to reduce their loan portfolios in order to deal with the massive write-offs they are going to have to make. And my bet is they put those reserves they are not lending into government debt.