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Fed Promised to Buy Bonds but Is Finding Few Takers

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The Federal Reserve thawed credit markets in March by promising a whatever-it-takes program to buy corporate bonds. Ten weeks later, the Fed has yet to buy a single bond.

Just the announcement of the backstop ended panic selling, boosted prices and fueled a record surge of new corporate-bond sales. Companies are now reluctant to sign up for Fed purchases because such a move could be seen as a sign of weakness during a market rebound, some bond fund managers and bank executives said.

The Fed has yet to officially launch the initiative, which enables it to buy limited amounts of new and pre-existing bonds of companies, in part because it is hashing out the technical details. Only companies that certify they are U.S.-based and haven’t received other aid under the Cares Act—a $2 trillion financial-relief package that includes loans and grants to businesses—can participate in the program, which would disclose their names, the amount of their bonds that the Fed would purchase and the prices paid.

The Fed indirectly bolstered corporate-bond prices in May by purchasing $3 billion in shares of exchange-traded bond funds. But that is a fraction of the up to $750 billion earmarked for corporate debt purchases.

The program should be “ready to go by the end of this month,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in Senate testimony in May. “I don’t say that it won’t be a day or two into June, but that’s our expectation.” A spokeswoman for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York declined to comment beyond Mr. Powell’s statement.

Fear of stigma isn’t the only thing deterring participation. Some companies don’t want the Fed buying their bonds now because that would limit how much the central bank could purchase if another wave of coronavirus roils markets, said one investment banker who covers large U.S. corporations. The Fed can’t use more than 1.5% of its backstop funds to lend directly to any single company, according to disclosures by the New York Fed.

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