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U.S. Treasuries riskier than German debt, default swaps say

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Abigail Moses
Bloomberg News Service
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

LONDON -- The risk of losses on U.S. Treasury notes exceeded German bunds for the first time ever amid investor concern the subprime mortgage crisis is sapping government reserves, credit-default swaps prices show.

Contracts on 10-year Treasuries traded at a record 16 basis points earlier today, compared with 15 basis points on German government notes, according to data compiled by BNP Paribas SA. In July, U.S. credit-default swaps were at 1.6 basis points, compared with 2.5 basis points on bunds.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke announced plans today to lend as much as $200 billion of Treasury notes in exchange for debt including private mortgage-backed bonds to avert an exodus from the securities that threatens to deepen the housing slump and economic slowdown.

"The U.S. government is not immune from the consequences of the credit crisis," said Fabrizio Capanna, BNP's head of high-grade corporate trading in London. "Support for troubled financial institutions in the U.S. will be perceived as a weakening of U.S. sovereign credit."

The Fed is trying to ease investor concern that a decline in house valuations and record foreclosures will add to losses for companies including Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two biggest providers of U.S. mortgages. The $4.5 trillion of agency mortgage securities is about the same size as the market for Treasury notes.

Credit-default swaps are used to speculate on the ability of companies or governments to repay their debt and offer a benchmark for pricing securities. The contracts pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent should a borrower fail to adhere to its debt agreements. A decline indicates improvement in the perception of credit quality; an increase, the opposite.

... Hoarding Treasuries

A basis point on a credit-default swap contract protecting $10 million of debt from default for 10 years is equivalent to $1,000 a year.

Investors and securities firms have hoarded Treasuries during the credit crisis because they are considered the safest and most easily traded securities, reducing yields on two-year notes to the lowest since 2003. Yields on Treasuries have been lower than on German bunds since October.

U.S. yields rose today by the most since May 2004 to 1.77 percent from 1.5 percent on Bernanke's plan.

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