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Economy in Brief

Recession and the Signal from the Treasury Yield Curve
by Joseph G. Carson ([email protected])  August 13, 2019

Recessions are far from being alike and their symptoms and causes differ over time. Despite its many shapes and sizes the historical regularity that an inverted Treasury yield curve has coincided with recession has raised concern now that yields on longer-dated Treasuries have fallen been below shorter-term yields for several months running.

The power of the term spread to predict or anticipate economic recessions needs to be respected, but there are several new domestic and global factors that are present today, suggesting that the signaling effect from changes in the Treasury yield curve directly to the economy's future performance might not be as robust as it was past periods.

First, this is the first economic cycle that involved a bond-buying program by the Federal Reserve. The quantitative bond-buying program produced a technical anchoring effect at the long-end of the bond market that was not present in prior cycles. While this program did not cause a yield curve inversion by itself it did result in a flatter yield curve than what otherwise would have been the case, and as a result, it would not take much force from other factors to trigger an inversion in the term spread of yields.

Second, given the increased globalization of the financial markets the appeal and demand of long-dated US Treasury securities is often based on the yields available in other major economies. Long bond yields in a number of major economies (such Germany, Japan and France) are negative and many others (including the UK, Spain and Australia) are below 1% and that has led to an increase in global demand for long-dated US Treasury securities since yields in the US are in some cases 100 to 200 basis points over the yields of comparable maturities in other economies. That increased global demand for US securities is a new technical factor and unrelated to the performance of the US economy.

Third, this is the first time the inversion of the Treasury curve occurred with nominal yields at the short and long end that were well below the growth in nominal income and GDP (or the economy's yield curve). Why is that important? There is a direct negative consequence to the economy's performance when the cost of borrowing exceeds the growth in nominal income. At that point, the cost of new borrowing starts to become too costly, leading to a slowdown or a decline in credit use, and a weaker economy.

Although it is often overlooked, all of the Treasury yield curve inversions that have preceded recessions have coincided with an inversion in the economy's yield curve, or when short and long-term nominal rates were above the growth in nominal income and GDP. The fact that the Treasury yield curve has inverted at relatively low nominal yields, suggests that the interest rate channel is not producing the restrictive influences on the economy as it did during prior inversions and instead is actually providing a cushion (or stimulus) to the economy. Policymakers should take note of this unusual occurrence and not rush to ease policy further, saving its interest rate powder for another time.

If the Treasury curve inversion is not producing a restrictive influence on the economy as it did in the past can the US still experience a recession? Yes, but it would come from different channels.

The biggest recession risk today centers around the trade dispute between the US and China. Trade disputes have the potential to be very disruptive and contractionary and can operate through a number of channels, such as trade volumes and production, currencies and prices and asset markets.

Of all of these channels, the biggest vulnerability for the US is the equity channel since the market value of equities relative to income and GDP is at record highs, providing consumers with vast sums of liquidity and wealth. If the imposition of new tariffs and the uncertainty over what may follow triggers a de-risking and rush to exit, sparking a sustained 25% to 30% correction in the equity market that by itself could trigger a recession as it would deal a substantial blow to consumer liquidity and wealth, and an abrupt and sharp decline in spending and confidence.

That is not a forecast or a prediction but merely an observation that all recessions have been caused by some form of a demand shock, and the inverted yield curve merely highlighted the vulnerability of the economy to a potential bad outcome.

Viewpoint commentaries are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the views of Haver Analytics.
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