What Is an Inverted Yield Curve?
The yield curve is a graphical representation of the yields on similar bonds with different maturities. An inverted yield curve happens when short-term debt instruments have higher yields than long-term instruments with the same credit risk profile. This is an unusual occurrence and reflects bond investors' expectations for a decline in longer-term interest rates, which is typically associated with recessions. Market participants and economists use various yield spreads as a proxy for the yield curve.
An inverted yield curve manifests when long-term interest rates fall below their short-term counterparts. In this scenario, the yield experiences a decline as the maturity date extends further. Often labeled as a negative yield curve, historical data attests to its credibility as a dependable harbinger of an impending recession.
Exploring Inverted Yield Curves
The yield curve is the graphical depiction of yields on comparable bonds across diverse maturities, commonly known as the term structure of interest rates. The U.S. Treasury's daily publication of yields for Treasury bills and bonds enables the visualization of this curve. Analysts frequently simplify yield curve signals by focusing on the spread between two maturities. However, there is no consensus on which spread is the most reliable indicator of an impending recession.
Traditionally, the yield curve slopes upward, reflecting increased risk for holders of longer-term debt. An inversion occurs when long-term interest rates fall below short-term rates, indicating a shift of investor funds from short-term to long-term bonds. This shift implies a growing pessimism about the economic outlook in the near term.
Historically, yield curve inversions, though infrequent, have closely preceded recessions, garnering significant attention from financial market participants. Among leading indicators, an inverted Treasury yield curve stands out as particularly reliable in signaling an imminent recession.
Selecting Your Spread
In academic research, the inverted yield curve's correlation with economic downturns is typically studied by comparing the yields of 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds and three-month Treasury bills. Conversely, market players have frequently directed their attention to the yield differential between the 10-year and two-year bonds.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell articulated in March 2022 his inclination to assess recession risk by scrutinizing the distinction between the prevailing three-month Treasury bill rate and the market's derivatives valuation, anticipating the same rate 18 months into the future.
Historical Instances of Inverted Yield Curves
Over the years, the reliability of the 10-year to two-year Treasury spread as a recession predictor has been notable, with only a false positive in the mid-1960s, despite skepticism from numerous senior U.S. economic officials.
In 1998, following the Russian debt default, a brief inversion in the 10-year/two-year spread occurred, but timely interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve prevented a U.S. recession.
While an inverted yield curve has frequently heralded recessions in recent decades, it is not a causative factor. Instead, it reflects investors' anticipation of a decline in longer-term yields, a pattern typical in a recession.
In 2006, the spread inverted for an extended period, foreshadowing the Great Recession that commenced in December 2007. On August 28, 2019, a brief negative inversion in the 10-year/two-year spread preceded a two-month recession in February and March 2020 amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Relation Between Today’s Inverted Yield Curve and Forthcoming Recessions
As of December 2, 2022, amidst rising inflation, the yield curve experienced inversion again, with Treasury yields as follows:
- Three-month Treasury yield: 4.22%
- Two-year Treasury yield: 4.28%
- 10-year Treasury yield: 3.51%
- 30-year Treasury yield: 3.56%
Notably, the negative gap between the 10-year U.S. Treasury rate and the two-year yield is at its widest point since late 1981, during a deep recession.
The state of the yield curve suggests that investors are anticipating tough times ahead and that the Federal Reserve may have to cut borrowing costs in response. However, there are differing opinions among economists regarding the possibility of a recession in the near future. Some experts believe that the inverted yield curve in December 2022 is not necessarily a sign of economic turmoil but rather indicates that investors are confident that rising inflation has been under control and that things will soon return to normal.
Extended periods of yield curve inversion emerge as a more dependable indicator of an impending recession compared to brief inversions, regardless of the chosen yield spread as a proxy. Nevertheless, the scarcity of recessions has hindered the establishment of conclusive insights. A Federal Reserve researcher acknowledges the difficulty in predicting recessions, citing the limited occurrence and incomplete comprehension of their causes. Despite these challenges, the persistent pursuit of understanding continues.