Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during a news conference following a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Flat U.S. Yield Curve Is Big Question for Parade of Fed Speakers

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(Bloomberg) -- The fate of the flattening U.S. yield curve now rests squarely in the words of Federal Reserve officials.

Bond traders have already reached their verdict. The yield spread between 5- and 30-year Treasuries narrowed last week to as little as 26.2 basis points, the lowest since August 2007. The prospect of an inverted curve, which has presaged past recessions, is as strong as ever. And it’s not just Wall Street scrutinizing the development -- St. Louis Fed President James Bullard on Friday said it’s “crunch time” for inversion, predicting it could happen later this year or in 2019 if the Fed keeps up its pace of rate hikes.

Several more central bankers will have a chance to opine on the phenomenon this week, including incoming New York Fed President John Williams, while the nominee for Fed vice chairman, Richard Clarida, will face Congress. What they signal may prove pivotal in a period otherwise lacking in debt auctions and top-tier data.

Any hints that the looming inversion has them contemplating a slower pace of rate increases could spur another bout of bull steepening, like after policy makers’ May meeting. If they ignore the curve, there’s little to stop the grind flatter.

‘Down the Drain’

“The Fed is supposed to adjust rates when the economy is doing well and inflation may pick up, but at some point they would have to stop,” Krishna Memani, chief investment officer at OppenheimerFunds Inc., said in a Bloomberg TV interview. But if they let the curve invert, “all they will do is take the U.S. economy down the drain.”

It’s hard to overstate the flattening move in the U.S. yield curve. Select just about any two maturities, and the gap between them has shriveled over the past year.

At one point last week, investors picked up a mere 2 basis points for owning 10-year Treasuries instead of seven-year debt. Strategists at BMO Capital Markets said in a report Friday that if that portion of the curve inverts, others are likely to follow, possibly within 25 to 35 trading days.

It’s far from certain the Fed will slow down as the curve flattens, given the new make-up of the voting body. Kansas City Fed President Esther George, possibly the most hawkish U.S. central banker, is likely to vote on the Federal Open Market Committee for the first time since 2016 as part of a reshuffle with the retirement of New York Fed President William Dudley.

Nor is it clear they should take their feet off the gas. Though rooted in Fed policy and low inflation, the flattening has been sustained by Treasury supply and demand trends. The government is concentrating the auction-size increases required to finance wider deficits in short maturities, while pension funds’ appetite for long maturities is expanding, TD strategists said last week.

Traders, for their part, are betting on persistent rate hikes. In fact, fed fund futures are pricing in between two and three additional increases this year, which is above the central bank’s forecast of two more in 2018.

The economic data of late have supported the market’s view. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge reached 2 percent for the first time in 13 months, while the unemployment rate is below 4 percent, which hasn’t been seen since the turn of the century.

The Fed doesn’t have a mandate to monitor the shape of the yield curve, of course. But officials in the days ahead may still have to answer for its relentless flattening.

What to Watch This Week

  • North American Free Trade Agreement talks continue in Washington and could wrap up if the U.S. meets its soft deadline for a deal
  • April retail sales data lead an otherwise quiet week for economic indicators
    • May 15: Empire manufacturing; retail sales; business inventories; NAHB housing market index; Treasury International Capital flows
    • May 16: MBA mortgage applications; housing starts; building permits; industrial and manufacturing production; capacity utilization
    • May 17: Jobless claims; Philadelphia Fed business outlook; Bloomberg economic expectations and consumer comfort; leading index
  • A busy week for central-bank speakers, including Clarida’s confirmation hearing
    • May 14: Cleveland Fed’s Loretta Mester speaks in Paris; St. Louis Fed’s Bullard speaks at crypto conference in New York
    • May 15: Dallas Fed’s Robert Kaplan speaks to Council on Foreign Relations; Clarida and Michelle Bowman, who was nominated to be a Fed governor, appear before the Senate Banking Committee; San Francisco Fed’s Williams speaks in Minnesota
    • May 16: Atlanta Fed’s Raphael Bostic gives economic update; Bullard speaks to media
    • May 17: Minneapolis Fed’s Neel Kashkari speaks in Minneapolis; Kaplan speaks in Texas
    • May 18: Mester speaks on macroprudential and monetary policy at an ECB conference; Kaplan speaks in Texas; Fed’s Lael Brainard speaks about Community Reinvestment Act
  • Treasury largely takes a breather from auctions
    • Aside from the usual slate of bills, it will offer $11 billion in 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities on May 17

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