The Inverted Yield Curve and Other Economic Fads

Remember the inverted yield curve and the hoola hoop? A few months back, the prospect of an inverted yield curve was seen as an ominous warning sign of bad times ahead. An inverted yield curve was supposed to signal an upcoming recession. This seems worth mentioning now because the yield curve is becoming seriously inverted as long-term rates have edged downward, even as short-term rates remain relatively high.

For those who have better things to do with their time, an inverted yield curve refers to a situation in which short-term interest rates are higher than long-term interest rates. This reverses the normal course of events, typically investors expect to get a higher rate of return if they agree to lock up their money in a long-term bond or time-lock account rather than keeping it in a checking account where they can get immediate access. A few months back, as the Fed was raising short-term interest rates, without much increase in longer term rates, many market analysts raised the prospect that the yield curve would become inverted and that the economy would therefore sink into recession.

This discussion made for painful reading. There is no mysterious incantation that leads an inverted yield curve to do any special damage to the economy. The actual story here is rather simple. Inverted yield curves almost always (I say "almost" in case I missed one) come about because the Federal Reserve Board raises short-term interest rates in an effort to slow the economy and raise the unemployment rate. Sometimes the Fed goes too far and throws the economy into a recession. It is not the inverted yield curve that causes the recession; it is the fact that the Fed raised interest rates by too much. Whether the short-term rate stays 0.1 percentage point above or below the long-term interest rate cannot possibly make any difference when it comes to the probability of a recession.

With the 10-year Treasury bond rate hovering at 5.0 percent and the Federal funds rate at 5.25 percent, we might expect the inverted yield curve folks to be warning of impending disaster. However, this line is apparently no longer in fashion, or at least not in the business pages of the country's major newspapers.

My other favorite recent fashion in economics dates back two years. In the summer of 2004, bond yields (interest rates) regularly fell on reports of higher oil prices. This was confusing to me since I'm an old-school type that tends to think that higher inflation is associated with higher interest rates, and higher oil prices mean higher inflation.

The economic fad of 2004 held out the opposite chain of causation. According to this story, rising oil prices pulled money out of consumers' pockets, thereby slowing the economy. Since the economy was already slowing, the Fed would feel less need to raise interest rates.

This one never made much sense (don't investors still care about the real return they get on their money?), but the story frequently appeared in the NYT and other papers. It also seemed to explain bond price movements at the time. Fortunately, this fad seems to have disappeared without a trace. Oil prices have shot through the roof in the last two years, and interest rates are �.. much higher. I am not surprised.

--Dean Baker

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