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Will an inversion in US bond yields trigger a recession?

Worries of a looming recession intensified late Thursday last week after the yield on the two-year US Treasury bonds hit 2.337% as the yield on 10-year bonds fell to 2.331%, marking an inversion that usually preceded previous periods recessions.

US 10Y bonds vs US 2Y bonds 4H

It was the first negative spread since 2019. However, Treasury yields flipped again on April 1 and again on April 4, when two-year yield rose to 2.453% against 10-yield that hiked to 2.432%.

An inverted bond yield shows signs that financial conditions are tight and could also signal a looming downturn. Under normal circumstances, the yield curve is not inverted since debt with longer maturities typically carry higher interest rates than nearer-term ones.

Considering that every recession since 1955 was preceded by an inversion in the yield curve for US bonds, its recent and more frequent occurrence surely does not alleviate concerns in the market, especially when it remains on high alert for the economic implications from Russia's military attacks against Ukraine and the growing inflation in the US.

Bond yields as recession markers

According to a 2018 report by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, each recession since 1955 followed the inversion of the US yield curve between 6 and 24 months. The only time the 10-year to two-year Treasury spread provided a false positive to a recession was in the mid-1960s. That instance did not deter economic officials from looking into bond yields when checking for signs of an approaching recession.

On Aug. 28, 2019, the yield on two-year bonds briefly surpassed the yield for its 10-year counterpart. This negative turn of the spread predated the two-month recession that started February 2020, which also happened amid the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

US 10Y bonds vs US 2Y bonds 1W

Before that, Treasury yields flipped for most of 2006. Nearing the end of the following year, the Great Recession happened and lasted until June 2009, marking the longest recession since World War II.

Not the only indicator

While bond yield inversion has been a reliable indicator of recessions in the past, it is not the only factor that could tell another period of significant, widespread, and extended economic decline is approaching. More importantly, even if they do predate a recession, an inverted bond yield is not the reason why it happened.

The performance of the bond market is only one of many factors that affect the direction of the economy. The recent movement of the yields of both short- and long-term US Treasury bonds could simply be indicators of how the market expects regulators to respond to global events and economic trends.

Increasing yields of short-term US government debt reflect expectations of a series of rate hikes by the Fed. Meanwhile, the slower pace of growth in the yields of longer-dated government bonds happen amid concerns that policy tightening may be hurting the economy.

Nevertheless, expect market watchers to look closely into bond yields over the next few months. Economic officials will likely do the same because if past recessions taught us anything, it is best to treat these indicators with caution and still have plans in place to ensure that even if a recession does materialize, its impacts to the economy will be lessened as much as possible.

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