So, have you heard the one about the “flattening yield curve?”
It almost sounds like the start of a bad joke because there have been so many discussions during this past year on it. However, it has been largely dismissed under the “this time is different” scenario as trailing economic data has remained strong and the recent stock market struggles are believed to only be temporary.
As I discussed yesterday, however, it is quite likely the message being sent by the bond market should not be dismissed. Bonds are important for their predictive qualities which is why analysts pay an enormous amount of attention to U.S. government bonds, specifically to the difference in their interest rates. This data has a high historical correlation to where the economy, stock, and bond markets are generally headed in the longer-term. This is because volatile oil prices, trade tensions, political uncertainty, the strength of the dollar, credit risk, earnings strength, etc., all of which gets reflected in the bond market and, ultimately, the yield curve.
But which yield curve really matters?
It depends on whom you ask?
“The rate on the 2-year has already jumped above the shorter-term 5-year note, a move that suggests the ‘economy is poised to weaken,’ DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday. Gundlach, a noted bond investor, has been warning investors to be cautious.” – CNBC
“Michael Darda, the chief economist at MKM Partners, says people may be too focused on the wrong data. ‘Recession forecasting is fraught with difficulty, so it’s important that we don’t make it more difficult than it has to be by focusing on the wrong indicators, or, at a minimum, less reliable one. It is the difference between the 10-year and the 1-year that everyone should worry about.” – CNBC
“While inversions have been reliable recession indicators in the past, the most important relationship — between the 3-month and 10-year government notes — is not inverted and thus hasn’t triggered the likelihood of a contraction ahead.” – CNBC
Wait, so which is it?
My answer is a bit different. When I am looking at technical indicators for the market it is not just “one” signal I am looking at, but several. The reason is that sometimes a single indicator can provide a “false” signal.
For example, the 200-dma has had several violations which did NOT lead to bigger declines. Therefore, there have been numerous articles questioning the efficacy of that moving average as an indicator. However, if you combine the 200-dma with a couple of other indicators to “confirm” the signal being sent, then some of the false readings can be removed.
This same premise applies to the yield curve.
While the 3-5 yield spread is currently in negative territory, it has not been confirmed by other yield spreads across the spectrum. As shown in the chart below, the best signals of a recessionary onset have occurred when a bulk of the yield spreads have gone negative simultaneously. However, even then, it was several months before the economy actually slipped into recession.
However, as I addressed previously, as with all measures, technical or otherwise, it is the trend of the data which is more important to your outlook than the actual number itself.
It is correct that the longer-dated yield curve has not turned negative as of yet. However, the market is already beginning to adjust to the reality the economy is beginning to weaken, earnings are at risk, valuations are elevated, and the support from Central Banks has now reversed.
So, which one am I watching?
All of them.
Just something to think about as you catch up on your weekend reading list.