TREASURIES-Prices gain after debt sales, falling consumer sentiment
* Early March consumer sentiment gauge lowest since Dec 2011 * Fed not expected to halt asset purchases anytime soon * Lipper data shows money flowing out of bond funds in the latest week By Chris Reese NEW YORK, March 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury debt prices rose on Friday as weakness in the stock market and an unexpected drop in March U.S. consumer sentiment bolstered the safe-haven allure of Treasuries. With $66 billion of new debt supply out of the way this week, investors were also moving to take advantage of yields hovering near the highest in almost a year, analysts said. Prices rose on Friday after the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment for early March tumbled to the lowest since December 2011. "We're past the auctions, we're still near the highest yields in roughly a year, which are levels that are appealing to some investors, and the confidence numbers are buoying the market," said David Coard, head of fixed income sales and trading at The Williams Capital Group in New York. Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes on Friday were trading 12/32 higher in price to yield 2.00 percent, down from 2.04 percent late Thursday. Yields remain not far off the 11-month high of 2.09 percent reached late last week after data showing stronger-than-expected U.S. jobs growth in February. The Treasury this week sold three-year and 10-year notes as well as 30-year bonds, and investors were buying to absorb the supply, Coard said. Treasuries were also generally supported by expectations the Federal Reserve will continue to buy assets over the near term in an effort to prop up the economy. While recent upbeat data on the labor market and retail sales have fueled optimism on economic growth, some investors say there has not been enough evidence of a recovery to spur Fed officials to scale back their program of buying $85 billion per month of mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries. "The doves on the committee will unequivocally want to see more progress made on the employment backdrop before they even contemplate tightening the reins on the latest round of (quantitative easing)," said Michael Cloherty, head of U.S. rates strategy at RBC Capital Markets in New York. The Fed's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, although Cloherty said it is unlikely to signal a slowing of debt purchases just yet. "We will need to see the current pace of job gains and declining unemployment rate continue for a few more months before the discussion about tapering really begins to develop some teeth," he said. However, investors may be getting nervous about the future of their Treasury holdings. Bond funds had their weakest turnout this year as investors committed just $1.23 billion in the week ended March 13, data from Thomson Reuters Lipper service showed on Thursday. That is the smallest inflow since the funds suffered outflows of $331.2 million over the week ended Jan. 2. Outflows from Treasuries in the week ended Wednesday were $1.07 billion, which was the largest amount of outflows since the week ended Oct. 10. Investors seemed to be putting their money into corporate debt, as inflows to corporate investor-grade funds were $2.13 billion in the week, which was the largest since the week ended Jan. 9. The Treasuries market was little affected on Friday by reports showing the biggest increase in consumer prices in nearly four years last month, while U.S. manufacturing output bounced back in February.