The Predictive Powers of the Bond Yield Curve

If you invest in stocks, you should keep an eye on the bond market. If you invest in real estate, you should keep an eye on the bond market. If you invest in bonds or bond ETFs, you definitely should keep an eye on the bond market.

The bond market is a great predictor of inflation and the direction of the economy, both of which directly affect the prices of everything from stocks and real estate to household appliances and food. A basic understanding of short-term versus long-term interest rates and the yield curve can help you make a broad range of financial and investing decisions. Keep reading to learn more.

Key Takeaways

  • The bond market can help predict the direction of the economy and can be useful in crafting your investment strategy.
  • A normal yield curve shows bond yields increasing steadily with the length of time until they mature but flattening a little for the longest terms.
  • A steep yield curve doesn't flatten out at the end. This suggests a growing economy and, possibly, higher inflation to come.
  • A flat yield curve shows little difference in yields from the shortest-term bonds to the longest-term. This indicates uncertainty.
  • The rare inverted yield curve signals trouble ahead. Short-term bonds pay better than longer-term bonds.

Interest Rates and Bond Yields

The terms interest rates and bond yields are very important for investors, especially those who invest their money in the fixed-income market. The two are often used interchangeably, but it's important to note that there is a difference.

An interest rate is what someone pays to a lender for borrowing money. This is usually expressed as a percentage of the principal balance. This means that you pay interest to borrow money and can also earn interest when you invest money in certain assets, such as bonds, certificates of deposit (CDs), or savings accounts.

Most bonds have an interest rate that determines their coupon payments, but the true cost of borrowing or investing in bonds is determined by their current bond yields. The bond yield is the return an investor realizes on a bond. It can be conceptualized as the discount rate that can be used to make the present value of all of a bond's cash flows equal to its price. A bond's price is the sum of the present value of all cash flow that will ever be received from the investment.

The return from a bond is commonly measured as its yield to maturity (YTM). That's the total annualized return an investor receives assuming the bond is held until it matures and the coupon payments are reinvested. YTM provides a standard annualized measure of return for a particular bond.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Interest Rates

Bonds come with a variety of maturity periods from as little as one month to 30 years. Bonds with longer terms tend to come with better interest rates. It's important to understand that there are short-term interest rates, long-term interest rates, and many points in between. Though all rates correlate, they don't always move in step. Short-term rates might fall while long-term interest rates rise and vice versa. Understanding the relationships between these rates (and all the points in between) will help you make educated investment decisions.

Short-Term Rates

The benchmarks for short-term interest rates are set by each nation's central bank. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve Board's Open Market Committee (FOMC) sets the federal funds rate, the benchmark for all other short-term interest rates. Its mandate is to promote economic growth through low interest rates while containing inflation. Balancing those goals isn't always easy.

The FOMC raises or lowers the fed funds rate periodically in order to encourage or discourage borrowing by businesses and consumers. Its goal is to keep the economy on an even keel—not too hot and not too cold.

Borrowing activity has a direct effect on the economy. If the FOMC finds that economic activity is slowing, it might lower the fed funds rate to increase borrowing and stimulate the economy. However, it is also concerned with inflation. If it holds short-term interest rates too low for too long, it risks igniting inflation.

Long-term interest rates are determined by market forces. These forces are primarily at work in the bond market. If the market senses that the fed funds rate is too low, expectations of future inflation will rise. Long-term interest rates will go up to compensate for the perceived loss of purchasing power associated with the future cash flow of a bond or a loan.

On the other hand, if the market believes that the rate is too high, the opposite happens. Long-term interest rates decrease because the market believes interest rates will go down in the future.

The Federal Reserve has recently raised the federal funds rate. In its June 2022 FOMC meeting, the central bank said it would raise rates by 75 basis points to a target range of 1.5% to 1.75% to combat inflation.

Reading the Yield Curve

The term yield curve refers to the yields of U.S. Treasury bills, notes, and bonds in order from shortest to longest maturity date. The yield curve describes the shapes of the term structures of interest rates and their respective terms to maturity in years.

The curve can be displayed graphically, with the term to maturity located on the x-axis and the yield to maturity located on the y-axis of the graph. As a historical example to illustrate this concept, the U.S. Treasury published the following yield curve for U.S. Treasury securities on Dec. 11, 2015:

Yield Curve for U.S. Treasury Securities


Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

The graph above shows that yields are lower for shorter maturity bonds and increase steadily as bonds mature. The shorter the maturity, the more closely we can expect yields to move in lockstep with the fed funds rate. Looking at points farther out on the yield curve gives a better sense of the market consensus about future economic activity and interest rates.

Below is another historical example of the yield curve taken from January 2008, including discount, price, and yield data charts as well as a graphical representation.

U.S. Treasuries

Bills Maturity Date Discount/Yield Discount/Yield Change
3-Month 04/03/2008 3.12/3.20 0.03/-0.027
6-Month 07/03/2008 3.10/3.21 0.06/-0.074
Notes/Bonds Coupon Maturity Date Current Price/Yield Price/Yield Change
2-Year 3.250 12/31/2009 101-011/2 / 2.70 0-06+/-0.107
5-Year 3.625 12/31/2012 102-04+ /3.15 0-143/4 / 0.100
10-Year 4.250 11/15/2017 103-08 / 3.85 0-111/2 / -0.044
30-Year 5.000 5/15/2037 110-20 / 4.35 0-051/2 / -0.010
Yield Curve January 2008.

Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

The slope of the yield curve tells us how the bond market expects short-term interest rates to move in the future based on bond traders' expectations about economic activity and inflation. This yield curve is inverted on the short end. That suggests that the traders expect short-term interest rates to move lower over the next two years. Put simply, they expect a slowdown in the U.S. economy.

The best use of the yield curve is to get a sense of the economy's direction rather than to try to make an exact prediction.

Types of Yield Curves

There are several distinct formations of yield curves: normal (with a steep variation), inverted, and flat. All are shown in the graph below.


Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

Normal Yield Curve

As the orange line in the graph above indicates, a normal yield curve starts with low yields for lower maturity bonds and then increases for bonds with higher maturity. A normal yield curve slopes upward. When bonds reach their highest maturities, the yield flattens and remains consistent. This is the most common type of yield curve. Longer maturity bonds usually have a higher yield to maturity than shorter-term bonds.

For example, assume a two-year bond offers a yield of 1%, a five-year bond offers a yield of 1.8%, a 10-year bond offers a yield of 2.5%, a 15-year bond offers a yield of 3.0%, and a 20-year bond offers a yield of 3.5%. When these points are connected on a graph, they exhibit a shape of a normal yield curve. Such a yield curve implies stable economic conditions and should prevail throughout a normal economic cycle.

Steep Yield Curve

The blue line in the graph shows a steep yield curve. It is shaped like a normal yield curve with two major differences. First, the higher maturity yields don’t flatten out at the right but continue to rise. Second, the yields are usually higher compared to the normal curve across all maturities.

Such a curve implies a growing economy moving toward a positive upturn. Such conditions are accompanied by higher inflation, which often results in higher interest rates. Lenders tend to demand high yields, which get reflected by the steep yield curve. Longer-duration bonds become risky, so the expected yields are higher.

Flat Yield Curve

A flat yield curve, also called a humped yield curve, shows similar yields across all maturities. A few intermediate maturities may have slightly higher yields, which causes a slight hump to appear along the flat curve. These humps are usually for the midterm maturities, six months to two years. The light blue line in the chart above represents a flat yield curve. In this case, there is a slight hump with modestly higher yields around maturities of six months and one year.

As the word flat suggests, there is little difference in yield to maturity among shorter- and longer-term bonds. A two-year bond could offer a yield of 6%, a five-year bond of 6.1%, a 10-year bond of 6%, and a 20-year bond of 6.05%.

Such a flat or humped yield curve implies an uncertain economic situation. It may come at the end of a high economic growth period that is leading to inflation and fears of a slowdown. It might appear at times when the central bank is expected to increase interest rates. In times of high uncertainty, investors demand similar yields across all maturities.

Inverted Yield Curve

The shape of the inverted yield curve, shown on the yellow line, is opposite to that of a normal yield curve. It slopes downward. An inverted yield curve means that short-term interest rates exceed long-term rates.

An inverted yield curve is rare but strongly suggestive of a severe economic slowdown. Historically, the impact of an inverted yield curve has been to warn that a recession is coming. A two-year bond might offer a yield of 5%, a five-year bond a yield of 4.5%, a 10-year bond a yield of 4%, and a 15-year bond a yield of 3.5%.

Historical Yield Curve Accuracy

Yield curves change shape as the economic situation evolves, based on developments in many macroeconomic factors like interest rates, inflation, industrial output, GDP figures, and the balance of trade. 

Though the yield curve shouldn't be relied on to predict exact interest rate numbers and yields, closely tracking its changes helps investors to anticipate and benefit from short- to midterm changes in the economy. Additionally, the yield curve has inverted prior to each of the 10 most recent recessions, so this metric—while not a guarantee of future economic behavior—has a strong track record.

Normal curves exist for long durations, while an inverted yield curve is rare and may not show up for decades. Yield curves that change to flat and steep shapes are more frequent and have reliably preceded the expected economic cycles.

For example, the October 2007 yield curve flattened out, and a global recession followed. In late 2008, the curve became steep, which accurately indicated a growth phase of the economy following the Fed’s easing of the money supply. Most recently, in April 2022, the yield curve was normal at the short-duration end, but 10-year and two-year yields inverted. This unusual yield curve shape prompted concern among some economists and investors about the potential for an upcoming recession.

Using the Yield Curve to Invest

Interpreting a yield curve's slope is useful when making top-down investment decisions for a variety of investments. If you invest in stocks and the yield curve says to expect an economic slowdown over the next couple of years, you may consider moving your money to companies that perform well in slow economic times, such as consumer staples. If the yield curve says that interest rates should increase over the next couple of years, investment in cyclical companies such as luxury goods makers and entertainment companies makes sense.

Real estate investors can also use the yield curve. Though a slowdown in economic activity might have negative effects on current real estate prices, a dramatic steepening of the yield curve, indicating an expectation of inflation, might be interpreted to mean prices will increase in the near future.

Of course, it's also relevant to fixed-income investors in bonds, preferred stocks, or CDs. When the yield curve is becoming steep—signaling high growth and high inflation—savvy investors tend to short long-term bonds. They don't want to be locked into a return whose value will erode with rising prices. Instead, they buy short-term securities.

If the yield curve is flattening, it raises fears of high inflation and recession. Smart investors tend to take short positions in short-term securities and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and go long on long-term securities.

You could even use the slope of the yield curve to help decide if it's time to purchase a new car. If economic activity slows, new car sales are likely to slow, and manufacturers might increase their rebates and other sales incentives.

What Are the Different Types of Yield Curves?

Yield curves come in various shapes. Normal yield curves have an upward slope along which yields flatten and are consistent when bonds reach their highest maturities. Another type is the steep curve. With this type of curve, there's a chance that the economy is improving, leading to higher inflation and higher interest rates. Flat or humped yield curves have relatively similar yields across all levels of maturity. Inverted yield curves slope downward and are the opposite of normal curves. This type of yield curve generally predicts that a recession is on the horizon.

What's a Bond Yield?

A bond yield represents the total return earned by an investor on a bond. The return comes from the bond's coupon payments. Investors can use the simple coupon yield to calculate the bond yield. But this method ignores any changes in bond prices or the time value of money.

What's the Difference Between Interest Rates and Bond Yields?

Interest rates and bond yields are terms that are commonly used interchangeably, but there are some distinct differences between the two. An interest rate is an amount charged to consumers by lenders to borrow money. It is also the amount of money earned on an investment. A bond yield is the total return that an investor earns from a bond.

Article Sources
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