Friday, September 21, 2018

FOMC Preview: "We Have the Nerve to Invert the Curve"

The quote in the title should be the motto for the 2018-2019 FOMC. For the FOMC is set to raise its interest rate target next week and expected to raise it several times more in 2019 despite a flattening treasury yield curve.

As seen in the above chart, the outright inversion of the treasury yield typically leads to a recession.  Despite this robust pattern, a growing number of Fed officials have become emboldened in their dismissal of it "since this time is different."  As Caroline Baum notes, 
In April, John Williams acknowledged that an inverted yield curve is “a powerful signal of recessions,” based on a significant body of research, including that by staff economists at his former bank. 
By September, Williams was already disavowing that signal. “I don’t see the flat yield curve or inverted yield curve as being the deciding factor in terms of where we should go with policy,” Williams said following a speech in Buffalo on Sept. 6. 
Next up was Fed Gov. Lael Brainard. She broke new ground in a speech last week when she... invoked the four most dangerous words in finance — “this time is different” — and applied them to the prospect of an inverted yield curve.
To be fair, President John Williams and Governor Lael Brainard are simply expressing the natural implications of the FOMC projected path for interest rates. As I noted before, the FOMC's own summary of economic projections implies a yield curve inversion over the next year or so. The FOMC, in short, is becoming increasingly dismissive of fears about inverting the yield curve. That is why the title of this post should be their motto for 2018-2019. Here is a t-shirt you can buy to commemorate this surge in FOMC boldness:

Some observers side with Fed officials arguing that "this time is indeed different" because the term premium is so low. To that I would first remind them that former Fed chair Ben Bernanke made a similar argument in 2006. As it turned out, the term premium had declined but so had the expected path of short-term interest rates. This can be seen in the figure below, which is constructed using the New York Fed's estimates of term premiums. It shows the 10-year minus 1-year treasury spread decomposed into (1) an expected rate path spread and (2) a term premium spread. These two component add up to the overall spread. The lesson here for the FOMC is to avoid falling for the siren call of the term premium excuse.

I would also remind naysayers that even if it were the case that the flattening of the yield curve is all due to a lowering of the term premium, the inverting of the yield curve still matters for financial intermediation. An inverted yield curve means smaller net interest margins for financial firms and thus less financial intermediation. That is, once the yield curve inverts, it goes from being a predictive tool to a causal agent. So even in the best-case scenario, one should not be cavalier about inverting the yield curve. Be careful FOMC.

P.S. Here is the backside of the t-shirt:


  1. Send Lael Brainerd a complimentary T-shirt.

  2. It looks to me that, unless the Fed dramatically increases the pace of shrinking its balance sheet, they will have to raise the rate they are paying on IOR to a level where they are losing money? That could be a difficult position for them, politically?

  3. "An inverted yield curve means smaller net interest margins for financial firms and thus less financial intermediation. That is, once the yield curve inverts, it goes from being a predictive tool to a causal agent"

    What is the evidence that the YC inversion is a causal agent? An inverted curve tends to precede the recession by multiple quarters in the US, and also precedes market peaks by multiple quarters. Not just that but none of the past 3 recessions in the US began while the curve was still inverted, they all began after a long term reversion started. There is also no obvious correlation between the depth or length of the inversion with the severity of the following recession.

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