Treasury yields invert as investors weigh risk of recession

April 12, 2022 | Market news

Investors look for indicators that might offer insight into future economic trends. One potential signal that some consider a telltale sign is an “inverted yield curve,” when interest paid on shorter term U.S. government-issued bonds exceeds the interest on longer term bonds. While it may sound like an arcane event, an inversion of the yield curve can suggest significant implications.

With headlines this spring focused on an “inverted yield curve,” is this unusual trend in the bond market a harbinger of economic recession?

What is an inverted yield curve?

The concept of the yield curve starts with bonds of different maturities and is often based on yields of U.S. Treasury securities. These are bonds of equal credit quality (all backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government) but with different maturities.

A simple way to view the yield curve is to look at current interest rates, or yields, paid by U.S. Treasury securities with maturities of three months, two years, five years, 10 years and 30 years. Investors typically expect to be rewarded with higher yields for investing their money for longer periods of time. This is referred to as a normal yield curve, one where yields rise along the curve as maturities are extended. The chart below depicts a normal yield curve among these five U.S. Treasury securities, which is where things stood at the end of 2021.1

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury

There are unusual circumstances where the yield curve “inverts.” The use of this term does not necessarily indicate that the slope moves from higher to lower when reading the chart from left to right. But it can mean that yields on some shorter-term securities are higher than those for longer-term securities.

On April 1, 2022, the yield curve inverted when comparing two of the key indicator rates along the curve – the 2-year Treasury note and 10-year Treasury note.1

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury

On this date, the yield on 2-year Treasury note closed at 2.44%. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 2.38%. When comparing those two maturities, the yield curve “inverted.”

Since this is a rare event, it tends to draw the attention of the financial press. Some analysts see the inverted yield curve as a key economic signal, with many speculating that it foretells a future recession.

Reading the tea leaves of an inverted yield curve

How significant is the inverted yield curve? “More than anything, it signals that the costs of taking on debt is going up and potentially exceeding the benefit of borrowing to make investments,” says Rob Haworth, senior investment strategy director at U.S. Bank. “It raises the possibility that corporations will be less likely to borrow in order to invest in new projects.” That has potential economic ramifications, though it’s not a clear indication that the economy is about to sink into a recession.

“The bond market may be pricing in a recession based on the most recent yields for 2-year and 10-year Treasury bonds,” says Haworth, though he cautions that a recession is not a foregone conclusion. Even if it is a sign of a recession on the horizon, it doesn’t mean it will occur immediately. Yield curve inversions have occurred before the previous three recessions, but generally well in advance of the actual event. For example, the yield curve inverted 422 days ahead of the 2001 recession, 571 days ahead of the 2007-2009 recession and 163 days before the 2020 recession.2 In one instance in the 1960s, a yield inversion occurred and did not result in a recession, though the rate of economic growth did slow.3

The reliability of the inverted yield curve between 2-year and 10-year Treasuries as a recessionary signal is not one that is universally accepted. For example, just prior to the most recent inversion event, two economists for the Federal Reserve (the Fed) issued a follow-up paper (to one first published in 2018) stating “it is not valid to interpret inverted term spreads as independent measures of a pending recession.” Their research raised questions about the predictive power of inverted yield curves between 2-year and 10-year Treasuries.4 As Haworth indicates, a bigger issue may be whether changes in interest rates have an impact on economic activity.

The Federal Reserve’s significant role

A severe but short-lived recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 resulted in a two-pronged response from the Fed. It reduced the short-term federal funds target rate to near zero percent, which helped keep rates on short-term government debt securities low. At the same time, the Fed began making monthly purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, a step that helped moderate interest rates on the long end of the yield curve.

Once inflation emerged as a persistent concern in 2021, the Fed shifted its strategy. It eventually ended its bond purchases in March 2022. Additionally, the Fed is expected to reduce its asset holdings (currently at nearly $9 trillion), which could push long-term interest rates higher. At the same time, the Fed indicates it is going to raise its target federal funds rate by at least 0.25% as many as seven times throughout 2022 (a process that began in March).5 Haworth believes that as the Fed sets monetary policy, it’s paying close attention to the impact on interest rates to try to maintain a normal yield curve. He points out that the Fed has many tools available to try to influence yields at different maturities in order to effectively achieve its goals of cooling off inflation while avoiding a recession.

“More than anything, an inverted yield curve signals that the costs of taking on debt is going up and potentially exceeding the benefit of borrowing to make investments.”

- Rob Haworth, senior investment strategy director at U.S. Bank.

Haworth is keeping a close eye on the relationship between 3-month U.S. Treasury bills and the 10-year Treasury note. “If the yield curve between the 3-month and 10-year Treasury is inverted for a period of weeks, that may be a more significant signal of a potential recession,” says Haworth.

Where the economy goes from here

Haworth points to a number of positive trends that are working in the economy’s favor. Most companies appear to be in a strong financial position, with balance sheets holding up well and cash flow meeting their needs. Haworth is skeptical that a short-lived yield inversion will play a major role in how most companies plan for the future. “Company decisions are made over time, not in a day, so a brief yield inversion is not likely to change a lot of business plans,” says Haworth.

Haworth says the big variable to watch is how corporations invest going forward. “If goods can be produced more rapidly to meet demand, that should help stem the tide of inflation.” Alternatively, lower consumer spending that reduces demand could also accomplish the same goal, but that might mean a greater chance of the economy tipping into a recession.

Check in with your wealth planning professional to make sure you’re comfortable with your current investments and that your portfolio remains consistent with your long-term financial goals.

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