In normal economic conditions, the yield curve sloped upward, with 10-year Treasury bonds paying higher interest rates than the one-year bonds. But during economic downturns, short-term debt tends to have higher rates than long-term debt due to risk aversion.
Since 1970, each US recession has been preceded by an inversion of the curve. Its track record is quite impressive, with few fake signals (the credit crunch in the mid-1960s and the short-term inversion during the 1998 stock market crash).
Looking at the one-year/10-year spread, the curve is not inverted yet. As of today, it stands at +6 basis points but clearly follows a downward trend. That being said, it means that the risk of recession is becoming real but, based on the previous decades, this would only happen in several quarters. Historically, the lag between the inversion of the yield curve and the recession is on average 22 months. If history repeats itself – which is not certain – the likelihood that a recession happens in 2020 is very high. This time is not different
Asked about the flattening trend in yields in July 2018, Fed chair Powell, like his predecessors Bernanke and Yellen, took a “this time it is different” outlook on signals sent by the bond market, indicating that the shape of the yield curve will not influence normalising interest rates and the balance sheet. He confirmed at this occasion that “what really matters is what the neutral rate of interest is”.
Over the past few years, it has been very popular among US policymakers to dismiss the curve, both because QE has depressed the term premium, thus artificially flattening, and because there are distortions caused by a preference for safe-haven assets
, notably the US 10-year Treasury bonds (negative risk premium).
The influence of these two factors cannot be ignored, but it would be very unwise to overlook the current signals given the reliability of the US yield curve in forecasting recessions. Historically, an inverted yield curve is the
• Markets expect the economy to deteriorate, as it is the case nowadays (the latest ugly US data, such as December retail sales, confirm a sharp deceleration). An inverted yield curve negatively impacts the real economy through the banking sector by hurting banks’ profitability, which leads to more restrictive credit conditions.
• In some cases, it may also signal that the monetary policy is too tight, implying that the neutral rate is lower than what the Federal Reserve believes. This is one of the criticisms that are beginning to be formulated and which seems to be corroborated by our simple US Monetary Condition Index which points to tight monetary conditions since early 2018. What’s next?
As we believe that the curve is still one of the most important signals regarding the risk of recession, we expect that the market will face higher stress in coming quarters on the back of lower growth expectations and flattened/inverted yield curve. In the chart below, we have plotted the VIX and the one-year/10-year spread.