Explainer: Why Markets are Worried About the Yield Curve
If you pay any attention to financial media, chances are that you’ve heard increased chatter about the flattening “yield curve” in the past few weeks.
For professional investors, talking about the yield curve is close to second nature – but to most regular folks, the words probably sound very abstract or esoteric.
What’s a Yield Curve?
The yield curve is a curve showing several yields or interest rates across different bond contract lengths.
In a normal credit environment, the premise is that yields are higher for longer maturity bonds.
In a way, this is similar to what you’d expect if you went to the bank and put your money into a time deposit. For example, if you put your money in for five years, you’d expect a higher return per year than if you put your money in for six months.
Why? You’re taking on more risk, and therefore deserve a higher rate of compensation.
Out of Whack
Sometimes the market gets out of whack, and yield curves do some interesting things.
As you can see above, sometimes long-term interest rates can be equal to those of short-term rates. This is called a “flat” yield curve.
Or, when long-term rates fall below short-term rates, that is an “inverted” yield curve. As you’ll see shortly, this can be a signal of trouble in credit markets and the greater economy as a whole.
The Curve Everyone is Talking about
While a yield curve can be shown for any bond, there is one particular yield curve that you’ll often see referenced by financial journalists and analysts.
That would be the yield curve for U.S. Treasuries, the bonds issued by the U.S. federal government to fund its activities. More specifically, the difference between 10-year and 2-year bonds has been a historical indicator of the health of the economy and markets.
And despite this curve looking pretty normal since the financial crisis, it has been flattening over time:
|2-yr||3-yr||5-yr||7-yr||10-yr||Difference (10yr - 2yr)|
Source: U.S. Treasury Dept (Each year’s data corresponds to this day in September)
In 2014, the difference for 10-year and 2-year bonds was 1.94%. Today, the difference is just 0.24%!
Why It Matters
There are various interpretations out there of what an inverted yield curve could mean for markets.
There are also pundits out there who say things are different this time around. There is some validity to this, as things are never cut and dry in economics. Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time that global credit markets have acted in strange ways since the crisis.
That all said, the reason the inverted yield curve is a topic of conversation is simple: inverted yield curves have preceded every post-war U.S. recession.
So now you know what the fuss is about – and maybe, just maybe, you’re more inclined to dive deeper into the exciting world of yield curves.
Visualizing the 700-Year Fall of Interest Rates
Could interest rates enter negative territory permanently? This chart plots trend data over 700 years, showing that it could be a possibility.
Visualizing the 700-Year Decline of Interest Rates
How far can interest rates fall?
Currently, many sovereign rates sit in negative territory, and there is an unprecedented $10 trillion in negative-yielding debt. This new interest rate climate has many observers wondering where the bottom truly lies.
Today’s graphic from Paul Schmelzing, visiting scholar at the Bank of England (BOE), shows how global real interest rates have experienced an average annual decline of -0.0196% (-1.96 basis points) throughout the past eight centuries.
The Evidence on Falling Rates
Collecting data from across 78% of total advanced economy GDP over the time frame, Schmelzing shows that real rates* have witnessed a negative historical slope spanning back to the 1300s.
Displayed across the graph is a series of personal nominal loans made to sovereign establishments, along with their nominal loan rates. Some from the 14th century, for example, had nominal rates of 35%. By contrast, key nominal loan rates had fallen to 6% by the mid 1800s.
Centennial Averages of Real Long-Term “Safe-Asset”† Rates From 1311-2018
*Real rates take inflation into account, and are calculated as follows: nominal rate – inflation = real rate.
†Safe assets are issued from global financial powers
Starting in 1311, data from the report shows how average real rates moved from 5.1% in the 1300s down to an average of 2% in the 1900s.
The average real rate between 2000-2018 stands at 1.3%.
Why have interest rates been trending downward for so long?
Here are the three prevailing theories as to why they’re dropping:
1. Productivity Growth
Since 1970, productivity growth has slowed. A nation’s productive capacity is determined by a number of factors, including labor force participation and economic output.
If total economic output shrinks, real rates will decline too, theory suggests. Lower productivity growth leads to lower wage growth expectations.
In addition, lower productivity growth means less business investment, therefore a lower demand for capital. This in turn causes the lower interest rates.
Demographics impact interest rates on a number of levels. The aging population—paired with declining fertility levels—result in higher savings rates, longer life expectancies, and lower labor force participation rates.
In the U.S., baby boomers are retiring at a pace of 10,000 people per day, and other advanced economies are also seeing comparable growth in retirees. Theory suggests that this creates downward pressure on real interest rates, as the number of people in the workforce declines.
3. Economic Growth
Dampened economic growth can also have a negative impact on future earnings, pushing down the real interest rate in the process. Since 1961, GDP growth among OECD countries has dropped from 4.3% to 3% in 2018.
Larry Summers referred to this sloping trend since the 1970s as “secular stagnation” during an International Monetary Fund conference in 2013.
Secular stagnation occurs when the economy is faced with persistently lagging economic health. One possible way to address a declining interest rate conundrum, Summers has suggested, is through expansionary government spending.
Bond Yields Declining
According to the report, another trend has coincided with falling interest rates: declining bond yields.
Since the 1300s, global nominal bonds yields have dropped from over 14% to around 2%.
The graph illustrates how real interest rates and bond yields appear to slope across a similar trend line. While it may seem remarkable that interest rates keep falling, this phenomenon shows that a broader trend may be occurring—across centuries, asset classes, and fiscal regimes.
In fact, the historical record would imply that we will see ever new record lows in real rates in future business cycles in the 2020s/30s
Although this may be fortunate for debt-seekers, it can create challenges for fixed income investors—who may seek alternatives strategies with higher yield potential instead.
The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years
Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.
The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years
Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?
This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.
The Birth of an Investing Class
Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.
Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.
The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate
Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.
Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.
Dutch Perpetual Bonds
A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.
By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.
Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:
- Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
- Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
- Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal
Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.
Rule Britannia: British Consols
In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.
The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.
Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.
American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes
The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.
The Great Inflation of the 1970s
In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.
The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.
Looking Forward: Cheap Money
Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.
It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?
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