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Understanding the inverted yield curve and its implications

Apr 03,2023 - Last updated at Apr 03,2023

An inverted yield curve occurs when the interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than those on long-term bonds. This reflects investor preference for higher returns on shorter-term investments versus longer-term ones. Typically, this trend is viewed as a signal of pessimism among investors regarding the future of the economy. It suggests that investors are prioritising preservation of capital in the near term over investing in longer-term projects that may generate greater returns. Currently, the US Treasury bond yield curve is exhibiting this pattern. Given the ongoing rise in inflation, what actions should the Federal Reserve take in response?

Over the course of nearly five decades, there has been a historical pattern of inverted yield curves serving as a dependable indicator of an impending recession. This is because such a trend often signals that investors anticipate an upcoming slowdown in the economy, leading to decreased demand for credit and subsequently, lower inflation. As a result, lending activity can decline as the yield curve on bonds becomes inverted. This reduced economic activity may lead to slower growth, potentially resulting in a recession.

Consequently, an inverted yield curve is a cautionary signal for both investors and policymakers, potentially triggering efforts to bolster the economy and stave off recession. However, it is important to bear in mind that there exists a correlation between the Federal Reserve's decision to raise interest rates to combat inflation and the occurrence of an inverted yield curve. The Fed's interest rate hikes have the effect of raising short-term interest rates to a greater extent than long-term ones, which results in the inversion of the yield curve.

It is crucial to recognise that an inverted yield curve is not always a definitive predictor of an impending recession, and that several other factors may contribute to an economic downturn. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve may increase interest rates for purposes other than fighting inflation, such as to mitigate risks to financial stability or prevent asset bubbles.

In the past, the Federal Reserve has reacted to an inverted yield curve by implementing policies intended to stimulate economic growth and reduce the likelihood of a recession. One of the key measures the Fed can undertake is to decrease short-term interest rates. Additionally, the Fed has employed other methods to address an inverted yield curve, such as the implementation of quantitative easing programs.

Given the current high levels of inflation, the specific measures that the Federal Reserve takes will depend on various factors, including the severity of inflation, the present state of the economy, and unemployment rates. Therefore, the Fed must assess the potential risks and benefits of each course of action before making a decision. The top priority is clearly to combat inflation.

However, increasing interest rates can have negative repercussions on the economy, such as curbing consumer and business spending and increasing borrowing costs. Therefore, the Federal Reserve must strike a delicate balance between reducing inflation and fostering economic growth. This was recently demonstrated when the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates from 75 and 50 basis points to only 25 points, with the objective of reducing inflation rates. This measure was reinforced by the remarkably low levels of unemployment in America. Furthermore, raising interest rates may also contribute to flattening the yield curve, which is vital for maintaining financial stability.

 

The author is a board member of Jordan Deposit Insurance Corporation.

 

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