(Bloomberg Opinion) -- About a year ago to the day, the U.S. yield curve inverted for the first time during this business cycle. Sure, it wasn’t the part that has historically predicted future recessions, but it foreshadowed the more consequential inversion — the part of the curve from three months to 10 years — which happened in March and lasted for much of the rest of the year through mid-October.
This wasn’t much of a shock to Wall Street. Even in December 2017, many strategists saw an inverted yield curve as largely inevitable, with short- and longer-dated maturities meeting somewhere between 2% and 2.5%. That’s just what happened. It was enough to spur the Federal Reserve into action. The central bank proceeded to slash its benchmark lending rate by 75 basis points in just three months. Now the curve looks positively normal again.
“Inverted Yield Curve’s Recession Flag Already Looks So Last Year,” a recent Bloomberg News article declared. Indeed, the prospect of the curve steepening in 2020 is drawing money from BlackRock Inc. and Aviva Investors, among others, Liz Capo McCormick and John Ainger reported. Praveen Korapaty, chief global rates strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., told them the spread between two- and 10-year yields will be wider in most sovereign debt markets. PGIM Fixed Income’s chief economist Nathan Sheets said “the global economy has skirted the recession threat.”
Yet beneath that bravado, the fear of another bout of yield-curve inversion remains alive and well on Wall Street.
John Briggs at NatWest Markets, for instance, predicts the curve from three months to 10 years (or two to 10 years) will invert again, possibly for a couple of months, because the Fed will resist cutting rates again after its 2019 “mid-cycle adjustment.” “I see the economy slowing to below trend growth, the market seeing it and recognizing the Fed needs to do more, especially with inflation low, but the Fed will be slow to respond,” he said in an email.
Then there’s Societe Generale, which is calling for the U.S. economy to fall into a recession and for 10-year Treasury yields to end 2020 at 1.2%, which would be a record low. Even though the curve doesn’t invert in the bank’s quarter-end forecasts, it’s quite possible during a bond rally, according to Subadra Rajappa, SocGen’s head of U.S. rates strategy.
“Over time, if the data weakens, the curve will likely bull flatten and possibly invert akin to what we saw in August,” she said. “If the data continue to deteriorate and the economy goes into a recession as per our expectations, then we expect the Fed to act swiftly to provide accommodation.”
To be clear, another yield-curve inversion is by no means the consensus. The prevailing expectation is that the economy is in “a good place” (to borrow Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s line) and that Treasury yields will probably drift higher, particularly if the U.S. and China reach any kind of trade agreement. In that scenario, central bankers will be just fine leaving monetary policy where it is.
Bank of America Corp.’s Mark Cabana summed up the bond market’s base case at the bank’s year-ahead conference in Manhattan: There will probably be no breakout higher in U.S. economic growth (capping long-term yields) but also no need for the Fed to cut aggressively (propping up short-term yields). That should leave the curve range-bound in 2020.
That range, though, is not all that far from zero. Ten-year Treasury yields are now 20 basis points higher than those on two-year notes, and 22 basis points more than three-month bills. At the end of 2018, those spreads were nearly the same — 19 basis points and 31 basis points, respectively. That is to say, it’s not much of a stretch to envision the curve flattening in a hurry if anxious bond traders clash with a patient Fed.
For now, traders seem to be pinning their hopes on resilient American consumers powering the global economy, using evidence of strong holiday shopping numbers to back their thesis. My colleague Karl Smith isn’t so sure that’s the best strategy, given that the spending is actually weakening relative to 2018, plus it usually serves as a lagging indicator anyway. Markets are also on alert for any cracks in the U.S. labor market, which has been the bastion of this record-long recovery. November’s jobs numbers will be released Friday.
As for the Fed, its interest-rate moves are a clunky way to fine-tune the world’s largest economy. But that’s not the case for addressing angst around the U.S. yield curve. If the central bank doesn’t like its shape, it has the policy tools to directly and immediately bend it back.
It comes down to which scenario Fed officials consider a bigger risk in 2020: Allowing the Treasury curve to remain flat or inverted, or moving too quickly toward the lower bound of interest rates? Judging by dissents around the more recent decisions, this is very much an open question.
To get another inversion, “you’d need a Fed that wants to hold policy constant through a period of economic weakness: front end remains anchored near current levels due to policy expectations, long end drops due to diminishing growth/inflation forecasts,” said Jon Hill at BMO Capital Markets. “Not impossible by any means.” An inversion would probably come in the first or second quarter of 2020, fellow BMO interest-rate strategist Ian Lyngen said, though that’s not his base case.
That sounds about right. Fed officials seem satisfied with dropping rates by the same amount as their predecessors did during other mid-cycle adjustments. Now they want to wait and see how lower interest rates trickle into the economy, perhaps making them more entrenched over the next several months. It’s hard to say for sure, though, given that Treasury yields have behaved since the central bank’s last meeting. The market simply hasn’t tested the Fed’s resolve.
Relative calm like that rarely lasts, particularly when one tweet on trade sends investors into a tizzy. The path forward is almost never as linear as year-ahead forecasts make it appear.
The same is true for the yield curve. We might very well be past “peak inversion,” but ruling out another push below zero could be a premature wager.
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Brian Chappatta is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering debt markets. He previously covered bonds for Bloomberg News. He is also a CFA charterholder.
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