Pioneering work on yield-curve inversions and risk of economic recession

There is no doubt that global economic growth has slowed over the last six months. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) highlighted rising global economic risks in its recent Policy statement. The RBNZ noted that economic growth has slowed in our major trading partners of Australia, China, and Europe.

Economic growth has also slowed in the US. Although US financial conditions have eased in recent months, they did tightened over the course of 2018.

The risk of a US recession has risen in recent months. Albeit calls of a US recession have been around for some time.

A recent article by Gary Shilling in Think Advisor captures the type of the analysis undertaken on the US economy over the last 18 months.

Leading economic indicators for the US have weakened. Nevertheless, they are not consistent with forecasting a looming recession, except perhaps one, an inverted yield curve which is discussed below.

Overall the US economy is in good health, with record low unemployment, growing incomes, high saving rates, strong household balance sheets, business investment is set to increase, as is Government spending.

 

As Shilling notes in his article, the US economy could go several ways e.g. economic growth rebounds over 2019, the US experiences a period of prolonged moderate economic growth without a recession, or the US experiences a classic economic cycle and tips into a recession at a later date due to the US Federal Reserve raising interest rates.

By Shilling’s count, there have been 12 occasions since World War 2 that the Fed raising interest rates has resulted in a recession. Presently, this would appear some time away  given the Fed has indicated it is unlikely to undertake further interest rate increases in 2019.

The later scenario is most consistent with the consensus view – it is a little early to call a US recession, yet the risks of a recession within the next 2-3 years are growing. For the time being the US continues to expand and will enter its longest period of economic expansion in modern history in July 2019. Recession will eventually be triggered by the Fed increasing interest rates resulting in a more “garden variety” recession.

 

And this leads to a key point in Shilling’s article, the word recession invokes images of a Global Financial Crisis (GFC) type outcome – not surprising given this was our last experience.

His expectations are that the next US recession will not be as severe as the GFC.

He has a similar view with respect to the next US “Bear” market (i.e. fall in value of greater than 20%).

I’ll leave it to him to explain:

“Recession” conjures up specters of 2007-2009, the most severe business downturn since the 1930s in which the S&P 500 Index plunged 57 percent from its peak to its trough. The Fed raised its target rate from 1 percent in June 2004 to 5.25 percent in June 2006, but the main event was the financial crisis spawned by the collapse in the vastly-inflated subprime mortgage market.

 Similarly, the central bank increased its policy rate from 4.75 percent in June 1999 to 6.5 percent in May 2000.  Still, the mild 2001 recession that followed was principally driven by the collapse in the late 1990s dot-com bubble that pushed the tech-laden Nasdaq Composite Index down by a whopping 78 percent.

The 1973-1975 recession, the second deepest since the 1930s, resulted from the collapse in the early 1970s inflation hedge buying of excess inventories. That deflated the S&P 500 by 48.2 percent. The federal funds rate hike from 9 percent in February 1974 to 13 percent in July of that year was a minor contributor.

The remaining eight post-World War II recessions were not the result of major financial or economic excesses, but just the normal late economic cycle business and investor overconfidence. The average drop in the S&P 500 was 21.2 percent.

 

In short, history shows that US sharemarkets drop by about 21% when the economy falls into recession, remembering the S&P 500 fell almost 20% during the last three months of 2018.

 

Inverted Yield Curve

As you will know, the slower economic growth has resulted in several Central Banks, with the RBNZ the latest, to turn more cautious on the outlook for economic growth and inflation. This list includes the US Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, and Reserve Bank of Australia.

This sudden change in direction of interest rate policy (Monetary Policy) has witnessed a flattening of yield curves (when longer-dated interest rates are at similar level to shorter-term interest rates).

In the US, the yield curve has become inverted, where longer-term interest rates are lower than shorter-term interest rates.

The inversion has primarily been due to the significant reduction in longer-term interest rates rather than the increase in shorter-term interest rates (inversions normally occur when short term interest rates are increased rapidly by Central Banks).

The significance of this is that prior to the last 7 US recessions the yield curve has inverted each time.

Nevertheless, not every time the yield curve inverts does a recession follow and on average the inversion of the yield curve occurs 12 months prior to a recession.

 

As you can imagine a lot has been written in recent weeks on the implications of a negative yield curve, I would like to highlight the following three articles, which pretty much sums up the current debate:

  1. A very recent interview with the person who undertook in 1986 the pioneering work on yield-curve inversions and their foreshadowing of economic downturns (RA-Conversations)
  2. Mohamed A. El Erain’s article of “Beware of Misreading Inverting Yield Curve “
  3. BCA LinkedIn Post, Yield Curve Inversions and S&P 500 Peaks, don’t get bogged down in the noise.

 

It would appear, that when it comes to the current inversion of the US yield curve, we have “Nothing to fear but fear itself” (Franklin D. Roosevelt). This is certainly the view of Mohamed A. El Erain.

 

I have blogged previously on the history of inverted yield curves and their predictive ability. Similar there is also a previous post on the anatomy of equity Bear markets.

 

Happy investing.

 

Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.

 

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