Yield Curve Inversion & Market Discontents

Summary: Disruption from trade disputes, rising interest rates, uneven signals from housing and automotive markets, nascent inflation from a tight labor market, concerns about “peak” employment and lapping tax reform (at some point) next year have all served to create fear that the U.S. economic growth will slow and possibly enter recession perhaps in late 2019 or early 2020. Considered an infallible signal of impending recession, the yield curve (explained below) partially inverted last week as well. On the other hand, current conditions couldn’t be better and many company management teams, economists and investors see little reason for worry. Our view is that investments in high quality companies with resilient business models and trading at attractive valuations can be done at any point in the economic cycle, assuming a sufficiently long investment time horizon. We discuss an investment in CarMax (KMX) in this month’s newsletter.

What the Heck is an “Inverted Yield Curve”: An Explanation in Plain Language

In case you need to sound like you know what this means at your next cocktail party: (May we also suggest that if you are discussing yield curves at cocktail parties you should perhaps consider a different group of friends). Anyway, in the simplest possible terms, these are the three points you need to know: First: An inverted yield curve has correctly forecasted (preceded) every recession over the past 60 years, only once issuing a false warning (after which it was followed by an economic slowdown rather than an official recession). This explains why people care and pay attention. Second: An inverted yield curve is a sentiment indicator not an economic measurement. In other words, it reflects how investors feel about the future rather than actual economic activity, e.g. industrial production or consumer spending. For this reason, I will suggest Third: an inverted yield curve could still be wrong about the future, despite its strong track record.

A yield curve is just a graph: It’s a plot of U.S. government obligation (called bills, notes and bonds) yields (interest payments plus discount to maturity) on the Y axis against the duration of the bonds on the X axis. If you have a mortgage or a loan of any kind you can understand this. Basically, the longer the borrowing period, the higher the interest rate and normally the total yield. You will earn less investing in 2-year Treasury bills (normally) than a 30-year Treasury bond just like you pay a higher interest rate for a 30-year mortgage than a 10-year loan on your fancy vacation house. When we graph this relationship (yield against duration) we get this nice curve as seen in the below figure:

An “inverted” yield curve is – you got it – when the graph is going the wrong way and shorter-term U.S. obligations are generating a higher yield than long-dated bonds. How does this happen? It is a function of supply and demand in the bond market. When investors get scared about the near-term future (the next few years), they sell equities (making the stock market go down) and short-term U.S. Treasury bills (because they are worried about near-term interest rates and reinvesting the proceeds of bills as they mature) and buy long-term bonds. This makes long-term bond prices rise while short term bonds fall (with equities). Consequently, the yields get all confuzzled (as my 16-year old daughter would say, if she were to start talking about bond yields) and short-term debt yields more than the longer-term Treasuries and bonds, i.e. inversion. (I won’t include a neat graph of the inverted yield curve, I think you can imagine it yourself.)

The bottom-line: when the yield curve inverts (as it did briefly last week), you should understand that a lot of institutionally-managed money is being positioning for less attractive financial conditions (or a recession) in the coming few years. This signal was the primary factory behind the market tanking 800 points on Tuesday.