Trading an inverted yield curve: why and how Trading an inverted yield curve: why and how Trading an inverted yield curve: why and how

Trading an inverted yield curve: why and how

Althea Spinozzi

Head of Fixed Income Strategy

Summary:  Inflation, monetary policy, and a recession. Nobody is entirely sure of what's going to happen. Thus, it is critical to gain perspective and commit to a view. Here we discuss the inverted yield curve and how it can be traded depending on what you believe will happen in the foreseeable future.

After one year of maternity leave, I return to the office to hear the same thing from clients and colleagues: it’s a challenging market. Amid an ever-changing macroeconomic backdrop and monetary policies, putting money at work in a classic 60/40 style portfolio has become impossible. Nowadays, markets require investors to be tactical.

There is a problem, though: it's hard to be tactical when nobody knows what’s coming next.

The inflationary problem brought by the pandemic is unique in history. The world is shaping to be very different than pre-2020, and markets reposition frequently amid uncertainty. Some investors call for a soft landing, others for a recession. Some say rates will remain high, while others believe they’ll soon drop back close to zero. And the yield curve is a mess!

There is only one way to go: gaining perspective and positioning for the outcome that makes sense primarily to you.

In other words, I'm not here to tell you what will happen. I am here to display some market convictions and discuss how actionable they are in the bond market.

Why is the yield curve important?

Because it signals investors' feelings about risk and impacts investment returns.

Today’s inverted yield curve is a product of aggressive rate hikes, and it tells us that monetary policies today are more restrictive than they will be in the medium/long term. As the hiking cycle ends, it’s natural to expect it to steepen. Yet, it’s unlikely that the steepening process will be painless.

As many know, an inverted yield curve generally precedes a recession. In the past forty years, we saw an inverted yield curve only three times: before the Gulf War recession, before the dot-bomb recession, and before the great recession. If it's true that history repeats itself, we can rest assured the same thing is likely to happen also this time around.

What do you believe is going to happen?

  • You are in line with market expectations.

You believe that the Federal Reserve tightening cycle has come too far and that the economy will fall into a recession forcing the Fed to cut rates by 75bps by the end of the year despite firm inflation. This environment would give an edge to steepeners over outright longs. The most pronounced steepening will happen with short and middle-term Treasuries against the longer part of the yield curve, while the 10-year areas will serve as a safe haven. In this case, it's worth looking at 2s30s (ZT versus ZB) and 5s30s (ZF versus ZB) steepeners. Please refer to Redmond Wong’s article to learn how to trade steepeners with bond futures.

Because you’d expect a recession, buying the 10-year US note outright is also an option (US91282CHC82).

In the Saxo platform you can also find the Lyxor US Steepening 2-10 UCIT ETF (STPU:xmil), which rise as the yield curve steepens. 

  • You believe inflation will be sticky and that markets must push forward interest rate cuts.

Following the latest FOMC meeting, it’s clear that inflation remains the central bank's most significant focus. Thus, a tightening bias persists, and the Fed might not deliver interest rate cuts this year. In this case, it's too early to engage in curve steepeners. You might look to short the 3-month SOFR contract (SR3) or the 30-day Federal Funds future (ZQ) to express your view that the Fed won’t cut rates at the time the market expects.

In this scenario, it’ll be tempting to buy underpriced short-term TIPS. Yet, as the Federal Reserve holds rates, it might be time to turn to T-bills rather than floaters. For more information, please refer to this page.

  • In either case, the belly of the yield curve tends to outperform as hikes end.
A recent Bloomberg Intelligence report finds that the belly of the Treasury curve has outperformed before Fed easing cycles over the past five interest rate cycles. The report clarifies that the outperformance began about two months before the last fed move.

If rate cut expectations accelerate for 2024, the belly of the yield curve might outperform significantly.

In this scenario, one should look for outright US Treasuries with a maturity that ranges from 3 to 6 years. It's possible to use the Saxo screener to find a list of bonds that matches these criteria (please refer to the below).
Source: Saxo Platform.

It's also possible to use bond futures to gain exposure to the belly of the yield curve. One of the most used strategies for this purpose is the butterfly strategy, which consists of buying two times the belly and selling the wings.

Let’s assume the 5-year (ZF) bond futures contract is going to surge faster than the 2-year (ZT) and the 10-year (ZN) contracts. Therefore, our butterfly would look like following:

B = 2*ZF – ZT - ZN

However, to ensure that the butterfly moves only as the yield curve changes, it’s key to neutralize duration through a hedge ratio as described in Redmond’s article.

Once the weighting is correct, we’d insert two trades:

Sell ZT and Buy ZF
Sell ZN and Buy ZF

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