Why the Yield Curve May Not Predict the Next Recession, and What Might

Reprinted with permission from EconomicPolicyJournal.com

Gone Are the days when "green sh#%ts" was bleated daily on CNBC amongst a chorus of permabull snorts. Even the experts now recognize the recovery as a BLS swindle, and it is important to reintroduce the possibility of not only a low growth future, but one of outright and persistent contraction. As “double dip” has recently worked its way into the popular lexicon, we will explain why a traditional forecasting tool of recessions may not flash a warning this time around. Afterward, we explore why even “double dip” may not be an accurate term, as well as what a cutting edge-new economic indicator is forecasting.

Gary North wrote an excellent article explaining why yield curve inversions predict recessions. It is instructive now to illustrate how the fundamental backdrop has changed amidst unprecedented government intervention.

The interest rates for more distant maturities are normally higher the further out in time. Why? First, because lenders fear a depreciating monetary unit: price inflation. To compensate themselves for this expected (normal) falling purchasing power, they demand a higher return. Second, the risk of default increases the longer the debt has to mature.

In unique circumstances for short periods of time, the yield curve inverts. An inverted yield occurs when the rate for 3-month debt is higher than the rates for longer terms of debt, all the way to 30-year bonds. The most significant rates are the 3-month rate and the 30-year rate.

 

The reasons why the yield curve rarely inverts are simple: there is always price inflation in the United States. The last time there was a year of deflation was 1955, and it was itself an anomaly. Second, there is no way to escape the risk of default. This risk is growing ever-higher because of the off-budget liabilities of the U.S. government: Social Security, Medicare, and ERISA (defaulting private insurance plans that are insured by the U.S. government).

We are no longer in a persistently inflationary environment, despite the best multitrillion-dollar reflationary efforts to the contrary. Disinflation and outright deflation keep popping up in critical areas of the economy. While the central banks will likely overshoot in the end, resulting in an hyperinflationary spiral, for the time being, lenders are not worrying about inflation. And, while one may doubt the BLS’ calculation expressed by the Consumer Price Index, the below chart of CPI year-over-year is nonetheless striking, as it indicates the recent crisis brought it into the most negative territory since inception.



On the rise are medical and food costs, but continued deleveraging by banks and consumers are offsetting deflationary drags. Banks are writing down (and off) private and commercial real estate loans, and consumers will remain in spending retrenchment as long as they continue to work off credit in a high unemployment environment. Indeed, year over year consumer credit is in the most negative territory post-WWII.

 


 

Though headline civilian unemployment from the BLS’ household survey is ticking down from the ominous 10% level, this is largely a result of the birth/death model adjustmentand the removal of so-called discouraged workers from the counted pool. When viewed from the larger perspective of the civilian employment to population ratio, the job losses are staggering and unprecedented in the modern era. When the economy eventually does show improvement, these discouraged workers will reenter the job market and keep the headline unemployment rate persistently high.

 


 

Finally, creation of money supply, as expressed by non-seasonally adjusted year-over-year M2, continues to reflect slow money growth, notwithstanding the trillion or so in excess bank reserves sitting at the Fed earning interest at 0.25%. The very fact that banks are content to earn interest at this absurdly low rate indicates risk aversion and little fear of inflation.

 


 

North continues:

What does an inverted yield curve indicate? This: the expected end of a period of high monetary inflation by the central bank, which had lowered short-term interest rates because of a greater supply of newly created funds to borrow.

The obvious failure of the central banks to reflate the economy has now renewed fears that monetary inflation will not return for some time.

This monetary inflation has misallocated capital: business expansion that was not justified by the actual supply of loanable capital (savings), but which businessmen thought was justified because of the artificially low rate of interest (central bank money). Now the truth becomes apparent in the debt markets. Businesses will have to cut back on their expansion because of rising short-term rates: a liquidity shortage. They will begin to sustain losses. The yield curve therefore inverts in advance.

On the demand side, borrowers now become so desperate for a loan that they are willing to pay more for a 90-day loan than a 30-year, locked in-loan.

Aside from government darlings, businesses and critically, small businesses, have largely stopped expanding and are in defensive retrenchment. The problem is a reduction in both the supply and demand for new loans. There is definitely a liquidity shortage, but it is being expressed unconventionally as central bank quantitative easing and government stimulus are directed into non-productive parts of the economy. It is these zombie behemoths in the financial and transportation sectors that are most desperate for funds, yet they are not penalized for it. Instead, they are encouraged to feed at the government trough even as their smaller (and more productive) competitors are edged out through oppressive regulation and inability to access loans at a similar rate. This will continue to be a drag on overall growth, and without small business growth, the threat of recession relapse is greatly heightened.

On the supply side, lenders become so fearful about the short-term state of the economy -- a recession, which lowers interest rates as the economy sinks -- that they are willing to forego the inflation premium that they normally demand from borrowers. They lock in today's long-term rates by buying bonds, which in turn lowers the rate even further.

Though long term US Treasurys are benefitting from safe haven flight-to-quality status, short term Treasurys are similarly benefitting to a greater degree, thus widening the spread between the two. As stated above, banks are content to park over a trillion dollars in excess reserves at the Fed earning interest at 0.25%. A combination of a (currently low but slowly rising) fear of eventual US default, extreme desire for short term safety in T-Bills, and low fear of inflation is keeping the spread wide. Also troubling is the recent disconnect between short term Treasury yields and the borrowing rates actually available to businesses with excellent credit.

 



North concludes:

An inverted yield curve is therefore produced by fear: business borrowers' fears of not being able to finish their on-line capital construction projects and lenders' fears of a recession, with its falling interest rates and a falling stock market.

Indeed, these are the fears being expressed, but in different manners that are not immediately obvious. Small productive businesses are throwing in the towel as their larger competitors build Potemkin villages.

 

A further problem is that nearly all yield curve studies look back no further than the mid-1950’s, the inception of Fed data on US Treasury rates. Inasmuch as every recession since then (save the last) has been manufacturing based as opposed to credit based and has occurred in an overall inflationary backdrop, there lacks a crucial window into prior deflationary times concurrent with extreme government meddling—in particular, the Great Depression.

 

Many economists from the Austrian school follow M2 money supply as a harbinger of economic growth or contraction, as it tracks the creation and destruction of money through economic activity at the margins. As noted previously on EPJ, Rick Davis and others at the Consumer Metric Institute have created a novel indicator that tracks, in real time, consumer demand for capital goods. Accordingly, it should and does reflect similar activity, though with enhanced granularity. Indeed, it anticipates US GDP by an average of 17 weeks. A future post will explore this aspect of their data and possible uses for market timing. For now, Davis tells a different story than the governments that collude to forge a statistical recovery:

Our 'Daily Growth Index' represents the average 'growth' value of our 'Weighted Composite Index' over a trailing 91-day 'quarter', and it is intended to be a daily proxy for the 'demand' side of the economy's GDP. Over the last 60 days that index has been slowly dropping, and it has now surpassed a 2% year-over-year rate of contraction.



The downturn over the past week has emphasized the lack of a clearly formed bottom in this most recent episode of consumer 'demand' contraction. Compared with similar contraction events of 2006 and 2008, the current 2010 contraction is still tracking the mildest course, but unlike the other two it has now progressed over 140 days without an identifiable bottom.

 


As we have mentioned before, this pattern is unique and unlike the 'V' shaped recovery (or even the 'W' shaped double-dip) that many had expected. From our perspective the unique pattern is more interesting than the simple fact of an ongoing contraction event. At best the pattern suggests an extended but mild slowdown in the recovery process. But at worse the pattern may be the early signs of a structural change in the economy.

While confounding the average GE cheerleader, this new normal of increasing destructive intervention is intuitively understood by the consumer, who responds to this reality by pocketing the debit card. So what can we expect in the ensuing quarters?

 


 

Davis aptly describes what has happened so far:

[I]t has instead, unfolded so far as a mild but persistent kind of
contraction, more like a 'walking pneumonia' that keeps things miserable for an
extended period of time.

Until governments stop punishing innovation, stop rewarding incompetence, stop distorting economic signals with arbitrary econometric targeting, stop coddling failures--we will continue to walk with this pneumonia indefinitely. The solution, as always, is nothing. Stop intervening and let the chips fall where they may. Markets will correct things faster than you might think.