NEW YORK (Reuters) - Treasury debt prices rose on Tuesday, bolstered by weakness in the stock market and a dip in housing starts in February.
Wall Street stocks fell as investors took a break from buying that had pushed the benchmark S&P 500 index up in eight of the past nine sessions. That put it at its highest point since May 2008 and 10 percent below the record close in October 2007.
The Commerce Department said U.S. housing starts fell in February, but permits for future construction jumped to their highest level since October 2008.
Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes were trading 9/32 higher in price to yield 2.35 percent, down from 2.38 percent late Monday, while 30-year bonds gained 24/32 to yield 3.44 percent, down from 3.48 percent.
Yields on Monday touched a 4-1/2 month high of 2.39 percent. Treasuries prices plunged last week on signs of an improving U.S. economy and some stabilization of Europe's debt troubles.
Still, yields remain historically low. Ten-year yields of 1.67 percent hit in September were the lowest in at least 60 years.
"It would be natural to assume that since a bottom in bonds has been established, the smart thing to do would be to call for a rapid 2009-style backup in long-term rates," said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities in New York.
"Although such an outcome cannot be ruled out, it is not our central call. Instead, our new market call is for the 10-year note to establish a new, 2 percent to 2.5 percent trading range and to hold this range through at least the summer," he said.
"We find it hard to fight the Fed," Ricchiuto said, referring in part to the central bank's latest stimulus program, nicknamed "Operation Twist." As part of the operation, the Fed on Tuesday was buying $1.75 billion to $2.25 billion of Treasuries maturing February 2036 through February 2042.
There was some evidence the recent rise in yields may have run its course.
The share of investors who said on Monday they are long, or owning more Treasuries than their portfolio benchmarks, rose to 25 percent from 21 percent the previous week, matching the level seen two weeks ago, J.P. Morgan Securities' latest weekly Treasury client survey showed.
In the wake of last week's sharp market sell-off, the share of investors who said they are short U.S. government debt, or holding fewer Treasuries than their benchmarks, fell to 15 percent, down from 23 percent the prior week.
"The Treasury market appears to be in the early stages of tracing out a new higher range. There are no signs, yet, that this is the beginning of a sustained bear move," William O'Donnell and John Briggs, strategists at RBS Securities in Stamford, Connecticut, said in a note.
"Indeed, short Treasuries are holding in well after solid buying and there are no positioning and sentiment imbalances that would be typical at the beginning of a new bear phase," O'Donnell and Briggs said.
Additional reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Padraic Cassidy