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What an Inverted Yield Curve Means for the Economy

Quantitative easing

Another factor that is potentially affecting the yield curve is the Federal Reserve’s moves to buy government debt as part of its quantitative easing program (QE). The idea behind QE is that by buying long-term bonds, the Fed is able to keep long-term interest rates low, which decreases the rates on mortgages and other loans, thereby stimulating the economy. Conversely, when sold, lending rates will go up and economic activity will be reduced.

Earlier in March, the Fed started raising the benchmark US interest rate and stopped the asset purchases under the QE program that it launched in 2020 in response to the COVID pandemic.

But it also indicated that it would only start selling these assets after several months of hiking the benchmark rate. Since the benchmark rate is a short-term rate, the yield curve inverting might indicate market expectations that short-term interest rates will be higher than long-term ones for the foreseeable future.


Which yield curve should we consider?

It is also sometimes argued that two-year/ten-year spreads are not the most useful ones to watch, and that instead one should focus on yields at the shorter end of the yield curve. In this set up, if you look at the difference in yields between two-year and three-month treasuries, it is actually steepening: in other words, it is hinting that economic growth is going to increase in the short term.

Economists sometimes argue that these near-term yield curve movements have stronger predictive power than those further out. At the very least, the fact that these are saying something different shows the need to be careful because different data about treasury yields can depict a different (or even opposite) picture depending on what time horizon you are considering.

Spread between two-year and three-month treasury yields

To summarize, it doesn’t necessarily follow that an inverted yield curve will be followed by a recession. It certainly could mean that, in which case unemployment would likely rise and inflation would potentially come down more quickly than many are expecting. But for now, it’s too early to say. The debt market is certainly signaling that change is coming, though it’s often easier to say in hindsight what it meant than at the present time.


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