According to Investopedia, the yield curve shows the relationship between bond yields (the interest rates on the vertical axis) and bond maturity (the time on the horizontal axis).
Long-term bonds generally provide higher yields than short-term bonds because investors demand higher returns to compensate for the risk of lending money over an extended period. Occasionally, however, this relationship flips, and investors are willing to accept lower yields in return for the relative safety of longer-term bonds. This is called a yield curve inversion because a graph showing bond yields in relation to maturity is essentially turned upside down.
Imagine going to the bank and being told that a 1-year certificate of deposit yields 4.0%, but the 5-year CD only yields 3.0%. Few people would lock up their money for five times as long and earn a lower rate. This is an example of a yield inversion.
A yield curve could also apply to any bonds that carry similar risk, but the most studied curve is for U.S. Treasury securities, and the most common focal point is the relationship between the two-year and 10-year Treasury notes. Although Treasuries are often referred to as bonds, maturities up to one year are called bills, while maturities of two to 10 years are called notes. Only 20- and 30-year Treasuries are officially called bonds.
The two-year yield has been higher than the 10-year yield since July 2022, and beginning in late November, the difference has been at levels not seen since 1981. The biggest separation in 2022 came on December 7, when the two-year was 4.26%, and the 10-year was 3.42%, a difference of 0.84%. Other short-term Treasuries have also offered higher yields; the highest yields in early 2023 were for the six-month and one-year Treasury bills. (1)
An inversion of the two-year and ten-year Treasury notes has preceded each recession over the past 50 years, reliably predicting a recession within the next one to two years. (2) A 2018 Federal Reserve study suggested that an inversion of the three-month and ten-year Treasuries may be an even more reliable indicator, predicting a recession within about 12 months. (3) The three-month and ten-year Treasuries have been inverted since late October 2022, and in December 2022 and early January 2023, the difference was often greater than the inversion of the two- and 10-year notes. (4)
Weakness or Inflation Control?
Yield curve inversions do not cause a recession; rather they indicate a shift in investor sentiment that may reflect underlying economic weakness. A normal yield curve suggests investors believe the economy will continue to grow and interest rates will likely rise with the growth. In this scenario, an investor typically would want a premium to tie up capital in long-term bonds and potentially miss out on other opportunities in the future.
Conversely, an inversion suggests that investors see economic challenges that are likely to push interest rates down and typically would instead invest and lock in longer-term bonds at today’s yields. This increases demand for long-term bonds, driving prices up and yields down.
Note that bond prices and yields move in opposite directions; the more you pay for a bond that pays a given coupon interest rate, the lower the yield will be, and vice-versa.
The current situation is not so simple. The Federal Reserve has rapidly raised the benchmark federal funds rate (short-term) to combat inflation, increasing it from near 0% in March 2022 to 4.50%–4.75% today. The fed funds rate is the rate charged for overnight loans within the Federal Reserve System. The funds rate directly affects other short-term rates, which is why yields on short-term Treasuries have increased rapidly. The fact that 10-year Treasuries have lagged the increase in the federal funds rate may mean that investors believe a recession is coming. But it could also reflect the confidence that the Fed is winning the battle against inflation and will lower rates over the next few years. This is in line with the Federal Reserve’s (The Fed) projections, which see the funds rate peaking at 5.0%–5.25% by the end of 2023 and then dropping to 4.0%–4.25% in 2024 and 3.0%–3.25% in 2025. (5)
Inflation has been slowing somewhat in October-December, but there is a long way to go to reach the Fed’s target of 2% inflation for a healthy economy. (6) The fundamental question remains the same as it has been since the Fed launched its aggressive rate increases: Will it require a recession to control inflation, or can it be controlled without shifting the economy into reverse?
Other Indicators and Forecasts
The yield curve is one of many indicators that economists consider when making economic projections. Among the most closely watched are the ten leading economic indicators published by the Conference Board, with data on employment, interest rates, manufacturing, stock prices, housing, and consumer sentiment. The Leading Economic Index, which includes all ten indicators, fell for nine consecutive months through November 2022. Conference Board economists predict a recession beginning around the end of 2022 and lasting until mid-2023. (7) Recessions are not officially declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research until they are underway. The Conference Board view would suggest the United States may already be in a recession.
In The Wall Street Journal’s October 2022 Economic Forecasting Survey, most economists believed the United States would enter a recession within the next 12 months, with an average expectation of a relatively mild 8-month downturn. (8) More recent surveys of economists for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and Wolters Kluwer Blue Chip Economic Indicators also found a consensus for a mild recession in 2023. (9)
For now, the economy appears strong despite high inflation, with a low December 2022 unemployment rate of 3.5% and an estimated 2.9% 4th quarter growth rate for real gross domestic product (GDP). Nonetheless, the indicators and surveys discussed above suggest an economic downturn in the next year or so. This would likely cause some job losses and other temporary financial hardship, but a brief recession may be the necessary price to tame inflation and put the U.S. economy on a more stable track for future growth.
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(1), (4) U.S. Treasury, 2023
(2) Financial Times, December 7, 2022
(3) Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, August 27, 2018
(5) Federal Reserve, 2022
(6) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022
(7) The Conference Board, December 22, 2022
(8) The Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2022
(9) SIFMA, December 2022