TREASURIES-U.S. bond prices gain slightly in safety bidding
* Benchmark yields just above 10-week low touched on Tuesday * Superstorm Sandy pushes weekly jobless claims to 1-1/2-year high * No compromise seen soon in government's "fiscal cliff" debate By Chris Reese NEW YORK, Nov 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury debt prices rose slightly on Thursday in safe-haven buying amid worries over a looming fiscal crisis and the relatively poor overall health of the U.S. economy. Gains were limited, however, as investors were reluctant to aggressively push yields much lower following a sharp price rally over the past week. Treasuries pared early price losses after the Labor Department reported a surge in first-time claims for jobless benefits last week after Superstorm Sandy left tens of thousands of people out of work. Price losses were pared further after data from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank showed an unexpected slump in factory activity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region in November due to disruption from Sandy. The safe-haven appeal of Treasuries was also supported by worries that Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip could turn into a wider offensive, said Matt Duch, portfolio manager at Calvert Investments in Bethesda, Maryland. "There are the fiscal cliff concerns and the overall economic backdrop, and then you add in newly relevant Middle East concerns," Duch said. "The Treasuries markets are just a place to park cash. I don't think anyone has a view long-term that is bullish on Treasuries, but there is that opportunity to just sit tight and just kind of let things pass, and when you get greater clarity maybe you can move back into risk markets." Treasuries have been rallying since last week following the U.S. presidential election, as worries over the outcome of a pending budget crisis cut investors' appetite for risk. If the White House and a divided Congress do not produce a deal on the federal budget before year-end, the series of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff will come into effect early in 2013, hitting economic growth. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that Republicans would have to agree to raise taxes on the wealthy as the first step in a budget deal. But top Republican lawmakers have been steadfast in pushing to hold down tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. Few market players expect a compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans any time soon, suggesting firm support for Treasuries in coming weeks. A significant rise in Treasury yields was also limited after the president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, John Williams, said late on Wednesday the U.S. central bank would likely keep buying both mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries until late 2013. The release on Wednesday of minutes of the Federal Reserve policy meeting in October, in which a number of officials reckoned the central bank would need to ramp up its bond buying to help the economy, also gave Treasuries support. The minutes showed a number of Fed officials thought the central bank would need to buy more bonds when its "Operation Twist" program expires at the end of the year. Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes were trading 3/32 higher in price to yield 1.58 percent, down from 1.59 percent late Wednesday. Benchmark yields touched a 10-week low of 1.57 percent on Tuesday. Superstorm Sandy drove new claims for U.S. jobless benefits to a seasonally adjusted 439,000, the Labor Department said. It was highest claims level since April 2011 and well above the median forecast in a Reuters poll. It was also the biggest one-week increase in new claims since 2005. The jobless claims report "does suggest quite a weak payrolls reading for November, but the weakness should be a temporary thing," said David Sloan, economist at 4Cast Ltd in New York. "It does suggest the hurricane is going to have a bigger short-term impact than expected." Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Fed said its business activity index slumped to a reading of -10.7 in November from a reading of 5.7 the month before. The fall was much steeper than economists' expectations for a slip to 2.0, according to a Reuters poll.
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