The Declining Treasury Yield Curve—Recession Looming?

Financial FAQs

We are basically at full employment with a 4.4 percent unemployment rate, which should tell us we are nearing the end of this growth cycle. Econoday reports, “The total number of employed Americans, and this includes both the self-employed and those on payrolls, is 153.2 million and a new record. This total has been rising steadily since falling to a cycle low in December 2009 of 138.0 million. Doing the math here means that 15.2 million jobs have been added during this expansion. The upward slope has been steady and is showing no sign of letting up. The peak in the prior cycle was 146.7 million, hit in November 2007.”

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Graph: Econoday

So how do we know we have reached a peak in growth? The National Bureau of Economic Research that tracks growth cycles tells us by using 4 economic indicators: including unemployment, real personal income and real GDP growth (less inflation), and industrial production. Those indicators have already surpassed their last peaks that were reached in 2007, so the question is how much higher can they go before they reach this cycle’s peak.

It is possible the economy may continue to grow with Congress and the White House politically deadlocked and unable to pass any stimulus spending, but that would mean the private sector starts spending more of their $4 trillion plus in unspent profits they have been hoarding, rather than wait for the tax cuts that Republicans have been promising. But don’t bet on that bridge to nowhere, as the saying goes.

On the NBER’s faq page, they define the beginning and end of recessions. “We identify a month when the economy reached a peak of activity and a later month when the economy reached a trough. The time in between is a recession, a period when economic activity is contracting. The following period is an expansion. As of September 2010, when we decided that a trough had occurred in June 2009, the economy was still weak, with lingering high unemployment, but had expanded considerably from its trough 15 months earlier.”

So June 2009 was identified as the end of the Great Recession (the trough in activity), which began in December 2007 (its prior peak). Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride has followed those NBER recession indicators, and as of April, 2015, they have all exceeded their past highs.

I believe the most important indicator has been personal income, which exceeded its past peak in 2012, but has fluctuated a bit since then.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Employment is also important, but has tended to lag the other indicators in predicting a recession. It didn’t peak until several months into the Great Recession, but is now 2 percent above its last peak.

All four recession indicators are now above their pre-recession peaks. The problem now is we and the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee aren’t sure that economic activity tops out until months later when the NBER sees a sustained drop in activity, as their 2010 example showed. This past quarter’s meager 0.7 percent GDP growth is still growth, by the way.

So another indicator that might indicate a looming slowdown is the decline in slope of the so-called Treasury Yield Curve, which shows the difference between short term rates regulated by the Federal Reserve, and long term fixed Treasury yields determined by the bond markets—such as the 10 and 30-year Treasuries.

The difference between those 2 yields is basically the profit margin made by lenders that have to borrow at short term rates and lend at the longer term interest rates. It is no longer as steep as it has been, which means lenders become more restrictive, which shrinks available credit, always a sign of slower growth.

So, if the Fed continues to raise short term rates, and because of market uncertainty or low inflation long term rates don’t rise from their lows, then it could mean a looming recession.  But that is a big ‘if’.

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly, The Huffington Post, and PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org.
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