What’s a yield curve and why is it so important?
Well, the curve itself measures Treasury interest rates, by maturity, from 91-day T-bills all the way out to 30-year bonds. It’s the difference between the long rates and the short rates that tells a key story about the future of the economy.
When the curve is wide and upward sloping, as it is today, it tells us that the economic future is good. When the curve is upside down, or inverted, with short rates above long rates, it tells us that something is amiss -- such as a credit crunch and a recession.
The inverted curve is abnormal, the positive curve is normal. We have returned to normalcy, and then some. Right now, the difference between long and short Treasury rates is as wide as any time in history. With the Fed pumping in all that money and anchoring the short rate at zero, investors are now charging the Treasury a higher interest rate for buying its bonds. That’s as it should be. The time preference of money simply means that the investor will hold Treasury bonds for a longer period of time, but he or she is going to charge a higher rate. That is a normal risk profile.
The yield curve may be the best single forecasting predictor there is. When it was inverted or flat for most of 2006, 2007, and the early part of 2008, it correctly predicted big trouble ahead. Right now it is forecasting a much stronger economy in 2010 than most people think possible.
So there could be a mini boom next year, with real GDP growing at 4 to 5 percent, perhaps with a 6 percent quarter in there someplace. And the unemployment rate is likely to come down, perhaps moving into the 8 percent zone from today’s 10 percent.
The normalization of the Treasury curve is corroborated by the rising stock market and a normalization of credit spreads in the bond market. I note that as the curve has widened in recent weeks, gold prices have corrected lower and the dollar has increased somewhat. So the edge may be coming off the inflation threat. If market investors expect the economy to grow, inflation at the margin will be that much lower as better growth absorbs at least some of the money-supply excess created by the Fed. My hunch is that inflation will range 2 to 3 percent next year.
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