Labor & Employment

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What a Yield Curve Inversion Means for the Economy

Last Wednesday, as yields on shorter-term bonds surpassed those of longer-term bonds, the U.S. economy briefly experienced an “inverted yield curve”. Historically, such an inversion has been a reliable predictor of recessions to come.

Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers, explains the significance of the yield curve and whether manufacturers should worry that a recession is on the way.

What is a yield curve?

In its simplest terms, if I lend money to you over several years, I would expect to get receive a higher interest rate to compensate me for giving up access to my money for a longer time frame. In a healthy economy, interest rates should be upward-sloping as the length of maturities increases. 

What does it mean if a yield curve inverts?

An inverted yield curve means that the interest rate for short-term loans is higher than for longer maturities. This would imply that financial markets might be more pessimistic in its outlook.

An inverted yield curve can foreshadow a recession. The spread between 10-year and 2-year Treasury bonds is often seen as an important barometer. Since World War II, when this yield curve has inverted, the U.S. economy has entered a recession within the following 12 to 18 months.

The yield curve between 10-year and 2-year Treasury yields inverted last week. It’s positive now, but still close to inversion. The last time this spread inverted was June 2007, predating the start of the Great Recession by five months. 

Should manufacturers be worried? Does that mean that a recession is just around the corner?

There are warning signs that we are closely following. Broadly, the global economy is clearly slowing, as noted in our most recent monthly report, and financial markets have been highly volatile in recent weeks, exacerbated by trade uncertainties. As a result, businesses in the U.S. have become more hesitant in their spending and there are worries that the economic slowdown abroad could find its way to the U.S. Within the manufacturing industry, production is contracting both in the U.S. and abroad, and hiring has slowed in the sector.

However, a yield curve inversion does not necessarily mean that a recession is imminent. Yields may be influenced by other factors, and there are positive economic signs too. Consumer spending remains strong, and the labor market remains near 50-year lows. The U.S. economy should also grow 2.3 percent in 2019.

What can policymakers do to avoid an economic downturn?

Central banks around the world are easing monetary policies to stimulate growth, or to provide an “insurance policy” for the economy so economic recovery can be sustained. These trends have pushed 10-year Treasury yields to their lowest levels since October 2016.

Manufacturers remain optimistic about the future, but in order to keep growing, we need to address the workforce crisis and resolve trade uncertainties. Namely, passing the USMCA, reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank and securing a bilateral trade agreement with China are necessary to ensure manufacturers in the U.S. can continue to grow.

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