(Bloomberg) — For Kaoru Sekiai, getting steady returns for his pension clients in Japan used to be simple: buy U.S. Treasuries.
Compared with his low-risk options at home, like Japanese government bonds, Treasuries have long offered the highest yields around. And that's been the case even after accounting for the cost to hedge against the dollar's ups and downs — a common practice for institutions that invest internationally.
It's been a "no-brainer since forever," said Sekiai, a money manager at Tokyo-based DIAM, which oversees about $166 billion.
That truism is now a thing of the past. Last month, yields on U.S. 10-year notes turned negative for Japanese buyers who pay to eliminate currency fluctuations from their returns, something that hasn't happened since the financial crisis. It's even worse for euro-based investors, who are locking in sub-zero returns on Treasuries for the first time in history.
That quirk means the longstanding notion of the U.S. as a respite from negative yields in Japan and Europe is little more than an illusion. With everyone from Jeffrey Gundlach to Bill Gross warning of a bubble in bonds, it could ultimately upend the record foreign demand for Treasuries, which has underpinned their seemingly unstoppable gains in recent years.
"People like a simple narrative," said Jeffrey Rosenberg, the chief investment strategist for fixed income at BlackRock, which oversees $4.6 trillion. "But there isn't a free lunch. You can't simply talk about yield differentials without talking about currency differentials."
DIAM's Sekiai has been shunning Treasuries since April, a month after foreign holdings of U.S. debt hit a record. Instead, he favors bonds of France and Italy because they "offer some degree of yield and the currency-hedging costs are cheap." That shift lines up with the latest available Treasury Department data, which showed that demand from non-U.S. investors in April and May was the weakest in a two-month stretch since 2013.
The fact that yields on 10-year Treasuries are still way higher than those in Japan or Germany is part of the reason foreigners are having such a hard time actually profiting from the difference. Negative interest rates outside the U.S. have caused a surge in demand for dollars and dollar assets, pushing up the cost to get into and out of the greenback at the same exchange rate to levels rarely seen in the past.
Ten-year yields in the U.S. are currently about 0.23 percentage point below a basket of bonds from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and Switzerland on a hedged basis, versus 1.4 percentage points above on an unhedged basis, according to data compiled by BlackRock. At the start of the year, hedged Treasuries yielded over a half-percentage point more.
In Japan, where 10-year government bonds yield less than zero, the advantage for Treasuries has dwindled from a percentage point at the start of the year to less than 0.1 percentage point now. Without much added value for overseas investors, it's harder to see foreign demand driving Treasuries to new records, especially as the Federal Reserve moves toward gradually raising rates.
Since falling to a record 1.318% on July 6, yields on 10-year notes have backed up as a string of economic reports such as last week's jobs data bolstered the case for higher rates. They were at 1.58% today.
For a large swathe of institutional investors, especially those with conservative mandates, hedging is the norm when they go abroad. It eliminates the need to worry about the daily ebbs and flows in exchange rates and how that might affect their returns. When it comes to Treasuries, overseas buyers usually lock in a fixed exchange rate on the interest payments they get in dollars.
In that trade, the cost to convert payments from one currency to another is determined by the cross-currency basis swap. Take Japanese insurers as an example. Under normal circumstances, they would swap their yen for dollars and get interest on the yen they loaned out over the course of the contract.
But now, because the rate has turned negative, they're effectively paying interest to lend the yen, which eats into their bond returns. That's on top of the Libor rate they'll need to pay for borrowing the dollars, which currently stands at 0.79% over three months.
The basis, as it's known, was at minus 0.6425 percentage point for yen-based investors, which is close to the most expensive in five years. For those with euros, the basis is minus 0.43 percentage point. That's more than twice as costly as the average over the past three years.
In a perfectly efficient market, none of this would matter. Differences in interest rates would be perfectly offset by the cost of exchanging two different currencies over time. But in the real world, things are far messier.
As unconventional monetary policies in Japan and Europe pushed yields lower and lower in recent years, demand for dollars has soared in tandem with the currency's appreciation. Banks responded by demanding stiffer terms to swap into dollars as supply diminished, cutting into profits on the "carry trade" in Treasuries.
Treasuries will remain a better alternative for many overseas investors as long as an advantage exists, no matter how small the hedged yield pickup has become, according to Ralph Axel, a bond analyst at Bank of America.
"They'll just keep buying," Axel said. Because of forces like negative rates and quantitative easing outside the U.S., "you clearly have a long-lasting bid."
Of course, there's the flip side. The overwhelming demand for U.S. currency is proving to be a boon for American investors and foreign central banks sitting on billions of dollars. Pimco also says there's profit to be made by getting paid to swap dollars into yen.
Overseas money managers, though, have had to turn to more novel solutions to avoid the onerous hedging costs. Jack Loudoun, who helps oversee about $88 billion for Vontobel Asset Management in Zurich, says he prefers interest-rate swaps and futures on Treasuries to get exposure to the U.S. market because lower upfront costs help reduce foreign-exchange risk.
"We're using derivatives to get access," he said. "If you're worried about hedging cost, swaps and futures are the avenues to go down."
Whatever the strategy, there's little debate over how important foreign demand is for the $13.4 trillion market for Treasuries.
"We're at a point now where investors have to start thinking about this," said Sachin Gupta, a foreign-bond fund manager at Pimco, which oversees $1.51 trillion. "As the cost of hedging rises to such an extent, there's no extra carry to be had. That itself will slow down the demand — and, at some point, even reverse the demand — for Treasuries."