The sharp market selloff in the fourth quarter of last year was partially caused by investor concern over an inverted yield curve.  Just last week we saw another big drop as the curve inverted again.  What is the yield curve and why are people worried about it? More importantly, how could it affect your plans if you’re at or near retirement and what can you do to protect yourself? 

What is the yield curve?

When you get a loan, the interest rate you pay is based (in part) on how long you need to borrow the money. All else being equal, the longer you borrow, the higher the interest rate will be.  The same is true when the government borrows.  They pay higher interest on 30-year bonds than on 30-day bonds. If you plot out government bond rates (e.g. 1-year, 2-year, 5-year, etc.) and connect them with a line, that is the yield curve.  In a normal economy, the curve slopes up and to the right, because as we just discussed, rates rise along with time to maturity.  

Why is everyone worried about it?

As we just saw, a normal yield curve slopes up and to the right because long-term rates are typically higher than short-term rates.  Once in a while, however, conditions are such that short-term rates rise above long-term rates.  This is a warning sign that the markets are anticipating trouble for the economy and they expect the Federal Reserve to cut rates.  When short-term rates rise above long-term rates, that graph we talked about earlier shifts from upward sloping to downward sloping.  In short, it becomes inverted.  This is concerning, because it turns out that an inverted yield curve is a pretty good predictor of recession.

Does an inverted curve guarantee a recession?

Not every inverted yield curve has led to a recession, but every recession we’ve had since World War II has been preceded by an inverted yield curve.  So when the yield curve inverts, it’s worth paying attention to.

Is the yield curve inverted now?

The yield curve flattened for most of 2018 as the Fed raised short term interest rates and long-term rates stayed low.  Then, during the fourth quarter, portions of the yield curve inverted.  It wasn’t entirely inverted, but even having portions inverted is a red flag.  Rates normalized a bit earlier this year (and the markets rallied), but last week portions of the curve inverted again when 10-year rates fell below 3-month rates.

If a recession follows an inversion, how long does it usually take?

An inverted curve is a good predictor of recessions, but they generally don’t happen right away.  The average time between inversion and recession is about a year.  

What does the stock market typically do after the curve inverts?

Markets will usually continue to rise for a period of time after an inversion.  For example, markets rose an average of 35% after the last 3 inversions (1989, 1998 and 2006), before ultimately falling as the economy went into recession.  And returns on the S&P tend to be above average for many months after an inversion. So yes, an inverted yield curve can signal a potential recession, but it can also signal a period of strong stock returns before the recession arrives.

What should investors be doing?

A yield curve inversion isn’t a perfect indicator and it’s by no means the only economic indicator. There are plenty of signs that point to a strong U.S. economy and as we saw above, markets usually continue to rise for a period of time even after an inversion.  That said, it’s a red flag, as are signs of slowing economic activity in Europe and China.  The best thing you can do is to make sure that you are invested in a way that is consistent with your risk tolerance, time to retirement, goals and overall financial situation.  Then, even if things get choppy, you’ll be able to ride out the storm.  For further ideas on what to do, read: Should you prepare for a deeper downturn?  

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