Inverted Yield Curve and Why It Predicts a Recession

Why the Yield Curve Is Inverted Now

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An inverted yield curve is when the yields on bonds with a shorter duration are higher than the yields on bonds that have a longer duration. It's an abnormal situation that often signals an impending recession.

In a normal yield curve, the short-term bills yield less than the long-term bonds. Investors expect a lower return when their money is tied up for a shorter period. They require a higher yield to give them more return on a long-term investment.

When a yield curve inverts, it's because investors have little confidence in the near-term economy. They demand more yield for a short-term investment than for a long-term one. They perceive the near-term as riskier than the distant future. They would prefer to buy long-term bonds and tie up their money for years even though they receive lower yields. They would only do this if they think the economy is getting worse in the near-term.

What an Inverted Yield Curve Means

An inverted yield curve is most worrying when it occurs with Treasury yields. That's when yields on short-term Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are higher than long-term yields. The U.S. Treasury Department sells them in 12 maturities. They are:

  • Treasury bills issued with maturities of 4, 8, 13, 26, and 52 week
  • Treasury notes that mature in 2, 3, 5, 7, or 10 years
  • Treasury bonds that mature in 20 and 30 years

An inverted yield curve means investors believe they will make more by holding onto a longer-term Treasury than a short-term one. They know that with a short-term bill, they have to reinvest that money in a few months. If they believe a recession is coming, they expect the value of the short-term bills to plummet soon. They know that the Federal Reserve lowers the fed funds rate when the economy slows. Short-term Treasury bill yields track the fed funds rate.

Why the Yield Curve Inverts

So why does the yield curve invert? As investors flock to long-term Treasury bonds, the yields on those bonds fall. They are in demand, so they don't need as high of a yield to attract investors. The demand for short-term Treasury bills falls. They need to pay a higher yield to attract investors.

Recessions last 10 months on average, as inferred from the 1945-2007 recession cycles. If investors believe a recession is imminent, they'll want a safe investment for two years. They may avoid any Treasurys with maturities of less than two years. That sends the demand for those bills down, sending their yields up, and inverting the curve.

The Most Recent Yield Curve Inversion

The 2020 inversion began on Feb. 14, 2020. The yield on the 10-year note fell to 1.59% while the yield on the one-month and two-month bills rose to 1.60%. Investors were growing concerned about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The inversion steadily worsened as the COVID-19 situation grew worse. Investors flocked to Treasurys, and yields fell, setting new record lows along the way. By March 9, the 10-year note had fallen to a record low of 0.54%.

Date 1-Mo 2-Mo 10-Yr
Feb. 14, 2020 1.60 1.60 1.59
March 9, 2020 0.57 0.52 0.54

Just days after that March 9 record low 10-year yield, on March 16, the Dow dropped 13% and the S&P 500 dropped 12%. The steep stock drop took place against the backdrop of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. As stocks dropped, the yield curve reverted to its normal state. By the end of the year, stocks had recovered their losses, and the yield curve remained normal.

The yield curve had begun flirting with the inversion as early as 2018.

2018

On December 3, 2018, the Treasury yield curve inverted for the first time since the recession. The yield on the five-year note was 2.83. That's slightly lower than the yield of 2.84 on the three-year note. In this case, you want to look at the spread between the 3-year and 5-year notes. It was -0.01 points.

Date 3-Mo 2-Yr 3-Yr 5-Yr 10-Yr 3-5 yr. Spread
Dec. 3, 2018 2.38 2.83 2.84 2.83 2.98 -0.01

The curve means investors were saying that the economy would be a bit better in five years than in three years. At the time, the Federal Open Market Committee said it would finish raising the fed funds rate in two years. It announced it would raise it to 3.4% in 2020. Investors were worried it could trigger an economic slowdown in three years if the Fed raised rates too high. They believed the economy would have recovered in five years.

On March 22, 2019, the Treasury yield curve inverted more. The yield on the 10-year note fell to 2.44. That's 0.02 points below the three-month bill.

2019

On August 12, 2019, the 10-year yield hit a three-year low of 1.65%. That was below the 1-year note yield of 1.75%. On August 15, the yield on the 30-year bond closed below 2% for the first time ever. A flight to safety sent investors rushing to Treasurys. The Fed had reversed its position and even lowered the rate a bit. But investors were worried about a recession caused by President Donald Trump's trade war.

Date 3-Mo 2-Yr 3-Yr 5-Yr 10-Yr 10-Yr. to 3-Mo. Spread
March 22, 2019 2.46 2.31 2.24 2.24 2.44  -0.02
August 12, 2019 2.00 1.58 1.51 1.49 1.65  -0.44

Does that mean this inversion predicted we would definitely have a recession in March or August 2020? No. The Fed only said there was around a 35% chance of a recession.

When the Inverted Yield Curve Last Forecast a Recession

The Treasury yield curve inverted before the recessions of 1970, 1973, 1980, 1991, 2001, and 2008. 

The yield curve predicted the 2008 financial crisis two years earlier. The first inversion occurred on December 22, 2005. The Fed, worried about an asset bubble in the housing market, had been raising the fed funds rate since June 2004. By December 13, it was 4.25%.

That pushed the yield on the two-year Treasury bill to 4.41% by December 30. But the yield on the 10-year Treasury note didn't rise as fast, hitting only 4.39%. That meant investors were willing to accept a lower return for lending their money for 10 years than for two years.

The difference between the 2-year note and the 10-year note is called the Treasury yield spread. It was -0.02 points. That was the first inversion.

A month later, on January 31, 2006, the Fed had raised the fed funds rate. The two-year bill yield rose to 4.54%. But that was more than the 10-year yield of 4.53%. Yet the Fed kept raising rates, hitting 5.25% in June 2006. The fed funds rate history can tell you how the Federal Reserve has managed inflation and recession throughout the years.

On July 17, 2006, the inversion worsened again when the 10-year note yielded 5.07%, less than the two-year note of 5.12%. This showed that investors thought the Fed was headed in the wrong direction. It was warning of the impending subprime mortgage crisis.

Date Fed Funds 3-Mo 2-Yr 7-Yr 10-Yr 2 to 10 yr. Spread
Dec. 30, 2005 4.25 4.08 4.41 4.36 4.39 -0.02
Jan. 31, 2006 4.50 4.47 4.54 4.49 4.53 -0.01
Jul. 17, 2006 5.25 5.11 5.12 5.04 5.07 -0.05

Unfortunately, the Fed ignored the warning. It thought that as long as long-term yields were low, they would provide enough liquidity in the economy to prevent a recession. The Fed was wrong.

The yield curve stayed inverted until June 2007. Throughout the summer, it flip-flopped back and forth, between an inverted and flat yield curve. By September 2007, the Fed finally became concerned. It lowered the fed funds rate to 4.75%. It was a half point, which was a significant drop. The Fed meant to send an aggressive signal to the markets. 

Word to the wise: Never ignore an inverted yield curve.

The Fed continued to lower the rate seven times until it reached zero by the end of 2008. The yield curve was no longer inverted, but it was too late. The economy had entered the worst recession since the Great Depression. The current fed funds rate determines the outlook of the U.S. economy.