interest rates

Yield Curve Inversion - What is it and what it means

August 15, 2019

If you were anywhere near financial news yesterday, you likely heard the term yield curve inversion more than a few times and observed a sharp equity sell-off.  We thought it was worth explaining what that term actually means – and why it may matter for investors

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What are bonds again?

The global bond market represents trillions of dollars.  Bonds are financial instruments that companies and governments use to borrow money.  Every bond represents a promise to repay, plus a stated rate of interest for use of the funds over time (referred to as a yield or interest rate).

Wait, how is this different than a stock?

Stocks do not include any promise of repayment.  Instead, stocks represent a share of ownership in a business.  As an owner, you receive your pro rata share of the company’s earnings and growth over time

Got it.  Back to bonds - how are bonds priced?

Again, bonds are a promise to repay issued by a company or government.  Bonds tell a story about the underlying issuer as it’s important to know how likely they are to repay you.  A riskier issuer tends to have to pay more (ie: a higher yield) than a less risky issuer.  In addition, an issuer borrowing money for a longer period of time is willing to pay more (as investors want to be compensated for locking up money for longer and an issuer is willing to pay up to have access to those funds for a longer period)

What’s a yield curve?

The US government is one of the world’s largest bond issuers, with promises to repay at a variety of maturities (from 30 days all the way to 30 years).  The yield curve is the progression of US bond interest rates over the various maturities.  Said another way, if you plotted out the interest rates on each of the US debt maturities on a graph from shortest to longest in a “normal” state, the curve would steadily rise left to right.   Why?  Investors typically demand a higher return for locking up their funds for a longer period of time than a shorter one (and the US government is willing to pay more to have access to funds for a longer period of time).

So in steady state, the rate the US government will pay on a 10-year bond is higher than the rate they pay on a 2 year bond

What’s an inversion?

A yield curve inversion is when the graph we described above slopes downward, implying that shorter maturities pay more than longer maturities.

We saw this happen yesterday, when the rate on the US 2 year bond fell below that rate on the 10 year bond.  

How did this happen?

Bonds trade in the open market, just like stocks, and the pricing of them is driven by supply and demand.  If demand is higher than supply, the price goes up (and the yield thereby goes down as there is an inverse relationship between the two).  So, in recent weeks/months, there has been a higher demand for the 10 year bond than the 2 year bond.  This drives the price of the 10 year up (and the yield down). 

Why would investors favor the 10 year over the 2 year?  It seemingly indicates near-term uncertainty in the US’ promise to repay and implies more value in the 10 year promise versus the 2 year promise, as well as a desire to lock in that offered rate over 10 years

Why did stock markets react?

An inversion of the 2 year/10 year yield curve has been a predictor of recessions in the past, with the recession coming approximately 2 years after such an inversion.  Even though the inversion lasted only part of the trading day, it was enough to cause recession worries, trigger quant funds and algorithms, and lead to considerable equity selling

Is a recession a sure thing?

First, remember what a recession is.  It is NOT two quarters in a row of negative real gross domestic product (GDP) as is commonly believed. 

Rather,   a recession is “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.” 

There are many data points that have been examined in hindsight after recessions that are now believed to be valuable predictors.  The 2 year/10 year yield curve inversion is one of these metrics.  Recessions has always followed a yield curve inversions - but remember there are also cases where the yield curve has inverted and a recession has not followed.   .

Any good news?

There is always good news. First, a decline in rates is excellent news for borrowers. If you have any debt (like a mortgage), you may want to look into refinancing at these lower rates. Second, while there is a lot of uncertainty and volatility, there remains many positives in the US and globally. If you are an investor and not a trader, you have prepared for this and can endure these moves. Stay focused and don’t rush to react.

Schwab's IMPACT Conference: Top Five Takeaways

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I recently attended Schwab’s IMPACT conference in Washington DC. IMPACT is a conference for independent advisors that custody assets at Schwab (like Windermere). The three day agenda is filled with education sessions on the markets, economy, and our practices as well as high profile keynote addresses and opportunities to connect with money managers, Schwab personnel, and other service providers. It’s an excellent conference and I thought it was only fair to share some key takeaways from my time in our nation’s capital

1.) Polarized government - Greg Valliere has been following DC politics for over three decades and shares his input at IMPACT every year. His main point this year was that the center of politics has vanished. Both parties are more polarized than ever and there is increasingly less desire for any cross party negotiations. He anticipates the house will turn to democrats in the midterm elections but that the senate will stay with republicans, resulting in more gridlock and polarization in DC for the next two years. (Greg sends a daily email sharing his insights. You can subscribe here)

2.) Trade concerns abound - but China moves forward - Many speakers expressed concerns over the ongoing trade negotiations with China. Concerns are centered around the uncertainty it is causing in the markets, as well as the possibility that it will slow US growth and potentially lead to a recession sooner than would otherwise occur. Money managers focused on China expressed similar concerns over trade. However they presented a strong case for investment in China - largely driven by the consumer story. Chinese citizens are experiencing record earnings (up 120%), high savings (average 35% of income), and low levels of leverage. Chinese government is also still willing to be very accomodative and stimulative

3.) Words of Advice from Former White House Chief of Staff - Andrew Card (Cheif to George HW Bush) was joined on stage by Dennis McDonough (Chief to Obama) and the two shared stories and advice from their time in the White House - as well as gave their perspective on the current administration. Card offered some advice his grandma had given him that could arguably benefit most of us: “Taste your words before you spit them out - and don’t leave the room before you go out the door.”

4.) Fed on track - According to Former Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, the Fed is on a reasonable track. Yellen’s tone was measured and thoughtful. She noted that in her view, the economy is doing very well and that a recession doesn’t appear imminent. However, she stressed that the Fed is seeking to keep economy from overheating (read - higher inflation) and will continue to raise rates gradually. Rates at the short-end, adjusted for inflation, are still effectively at zero and the Fed will likely target a real rate closer to 1% (which has historically been closer to 2%). Her main concerns include trade and the pressing need for entitlement reform

5.) Equity & Fixed Income Outlook - Schwab’s equity outlook was cautious. Concerns over trade and inflection points in certain economic data lead to a market weight to equity asset class in their view. Anticipation is that we have some runway left (especially post mid-terms which tends to be a strong cyclical period) but that we are late cycle. Over moderate term (6-18 months), prediction was that value, international, and large caps will lead. On Fixed Income side, Schwab anticipates ongoing volatility and spread widening. They stress that it’s time to add some duration (as long rates are close to near-term peak), focus on quality, and remain close to home (ie: US debt)

As always, it was a very worthwhile conference and we appreciate the ongoing guidance and support from Schwab in helping us better serve our clients