The flat-out truth
What is a yield curve, and why are stock investors interested in its shape?
A yield curve gives a snapshot of how yields vary across bonds of similar credit quality, but different maturities, at a specific point in time. For example, the US Treasury yield curve indicates the yields of US Treasury bonds across a range of maturities. Bond yields change as markets digest news and events around the world, which also causes yield curves to move and change shape over time.
Exhibit 1 includes snapshots of the US Treasury yield curve on the last trading day of September for the last three years. Rates across the entire curve have generally moved higher since 2016. However, short-term rates moved at a faster pace than long-term rates leading to a “flattening” of the slope of the yield curve.
Historically, yield curves have mostly been upwardly sloping (short-term rates lower than long-term rates), but there have also been several periods when the yield curve has either been flat or inverted. One question often posed by investors is whether inverted yield curves predict a future stock market decline. While the handful of instances of curve inversions in the US may concern investors, the small number of examples makes it difficult to determine a strong connection, and evidence from around the world suggests investors should not extrapolate from the US experience.
It’s almost Election Day in the US once again. For those who need a brief civics refresher, every two years the full US House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for reelection.
While the outcomes of the elections are uncertain, one thing we can count on is that plenty of opinions and prognostications will be floated in the days to come. In financial circles, this will almost assuredly include any potential for perceived impact on markets. But should long-term investors focus on midterm elections?
We would caution investors against making short-term changes to a long-term plan to try to profit or avoid losses from changes in the political winds. For context, it is helpful to think of markets as a powerful information-processing machine. The combined impact of millions of investors placing billions of dollars’ worth of trades each day results in market prices that incorporate the aggregate expectations of those investors. This makes outguessing market prices consistently very difficult. While surprises can and do happen in elections, the surprises don’t always lead to clear-cut outcomes for investors.