The U.S. Treasury Yield Spread

The U.S. Treasury Yield Spread offers insights into the economy.
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Investors and economists look at the difference between the yields of two distinct U.S. Treasury securities to predict where the economy is heading.

The difference, or spread, is between the Fed's short-term borrowing rate and the rate on longer-term U.S. Treasury notes. These rates shift based on action in the bond market.

Here you'll learn about what the yield spread means, how the yield curve reflects certain moments in history, and what it may have to say going forward.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Treasury yield spread is the difference between the Fed's short-term borrowing rate and the rate on longer-term U.S. Treasury notes.
  • The width of the yield spread helps to predict the state of the economy over the course of the next year.
  • Investors analyze the shape of the yield curve, and the changes to its shape, to gain a sense of economic expectations.
  • One of the most popular ways to measure these changes is to compare the yields on the 2- and 10-year Treasury notes.

Why Look at the Yield Spread?

If you look at short-term and long-term bonds, you can tell a lot from their interest rates. When you buy Treasury notes (or "T-notes"), for instance, you earn interest because the U.S. government is selling you a debt instrument, or in simple terms, taking out a loan from you. Usually, the longer the loan, the higher the interest rate. For this reason, you'd expect it to be cheaper to purchase short-term bonds than long-term bonds; you'll likely see a bigger return.

This is not always fact, but as a concept it can be used as a metric for many other factors that affect the economy, such as investor confidence. A yield spread does just that. It compares the yields on two distinct bonds (such as the 2-year Treasury note, or "T-note", and a 10-year T-note), or how much they each earned over a given amount of time. The width of the yield spread between the two helps to predict whether the economy might suffer a recession, or whether it might head towards a recovery, over the course of the next 12 months.

The spread between the yields on the two- and 10-year U.S. Treasury notes, for example, is an important gauge regarding the current “shape” of the yield curve. The yield curve is a graph with plotted points that stand for the yields over a given time on bonds of varying lengths. These are mostly bonds that can mature in as little as three months or as long as 30 years.

Reading the Curve

Investors analyze the shape of the yield curve, and the changes to its shape, to gain a sense of what to expect of the economy in the near future. The yield curve steepens when the market foresees certain trends. These include stronger growth, higher inflation, and/or an increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. “Steepening" means that the yields on longer-term bonds rise more than the yields on short-term bonds.

In order to make sense of the slope of the yield curve, it helps to know that as the price of bonds falls, their yields rise. Or in other words, prices and yields move in opposite directions.

On the other hand, when investors expect weaker or slower growth, a lower rate inflation, and lower interest rates from the Fed, the yield curve often flattens. In this case, the yields on long-term bonds fall more than the yields on short-term issues.

One of the most common ways to measure these changes is to compare the yields between the 2- and 10-year T-notes. The chart below shows this spread over time.

10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Minus 2-Year Treasury Constant Maturity
10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Minus 2-Year Treasury Constant Maturity. FRED (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

When the line in the graph rises, the yield curve is getting steeper. Or in other words, the difference or spread between the 2- and 10-year yields is rising.

When the line falls, it means the yield curve is getting flatter. Or in other words, the difference between the 2- and 10-year yields is declining.

When the line dips below zero, it means that the yield curve is “inverted”. This is a rare case where short-term bonds are yielding more than long-term bonds. In financial terms, this makes very little sense, but it happens.

With this basic knowledge, you can read the curve and note its changes over time. You'll be able to see how various aspects in the history of the U.S. economy are displayed in the chart.

Slow Growth of the Late 1970s

The slow growth of the late 1970s is shown by the 2- to 10-year yield spread moving into a deep inversion on the left-hand side of the graph. If you look to the upward slope of the line that follows, you'll see the recovery of the 1980s.

Some experts think that one cause for inverted curves is when people pull their money out of stocks (which have greater risk) and invest it into bonds (which are safer). This trend shows a lack of trust in the market, or that people are clinging to their money, both of which come at the onset of a recession.

Warnings About Downturns to Come

The yield curve became inverted at three crucial moments in time: just prior to the recession of the early 1990s, before the bursting of the technology stock bubble in 2000-2001, and before the financial crisis of 2007-2008. In each case, the yield curve provided an advance warning of severe weakness in the stock market.

The Post-2008 Era

Since the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve has kept short-term rates near zero, which has depressed the yield on the 2-year note. As a result, changes in the 2- to 10-year yield spread have been almost fully the result of the ups and downs in the 10-year note. The volatility of the line in this span of time reflects the shifting nature of economic conditions in the era after the crisis.

Keep in mind, there are many market forces at work at any given time, and the yield curve does not cover the full picture. It is a single metric, not a survey. So while the yield curve can offer hints about the state of the economy, or about its future state, it's not 100% failproof. For instance, in the late 1990s the decline in the United States’ debt contributed to a decline in the 2- to 10-year spread, even though the economy performed fine during that time.

The Current Yield Spread

The yield curve trended downward through December 2018, in keeping with an ongoing downward trend that started in 2014. The December 2018 spread of .21% hit a level not seen since the 2008 recession. In early 2019 there was an ever so slight inversion, but this was followed by a steady rise through 2020, and into 2021. It may seem odd that the yield curve would steepen during a global pandemic, but recall: the yield curve does not measure the state of economy as a whole, but is rather a metric of investor confidence in growth, and it may predict a boom.