A bond market barometer that briefly suggested growth was perking up has reversed course.
The so-called yield curve, typically calculated by measuring the differential between short- and long-term Treasury yields, has been flattening in the last few weeks. Long-term yields have fallen in response to tempered expectations for growth and inflation, even as short-term rates extend their months-long rise.
The differential between the two-year yield and 10-year yield on Thursday shrank to 0.54 percentage point, the smallest since Jan. 26, coincidentally the day of the S&P 500′s last record high, Tradeweb data show. That was near its January low, which had been the lowest in a decade.
The yield curve flattened this week as long-term yields fell after a slew of lackluster economic data. Retail sales slipped 0.1% in February, their third straight monthly decline, data showed Wednesday. And data on consumer and business prices showed inflation pressures remain modest.
Investors watch the yield curve because it can signal that the economy is speeding up when it steepens. It can show the opposite when it flattens. And when short-term Treasurys yield more than their long-term counterparts, it signals that a recession is coming.
The yield curve also influences portions of the stock market — lifting banks and financial firms when it steepens and pushing up utilities when it flattens. On Wednesday as the curve flattened, the S&P 500 utilities sectors outperformed the benchmark, while the financial sector underperformed.
Rising yields this year had made the yield curve steeper throughout parts of the winter, but recent economic data has dampened those expectations. At the beginning of this month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s real-time GDP tracker projected the U.S. growing at a 3.5% annual pace in the first three months of the year, but by Wednesday, it had fallen to 1.9%.
Though some have recently questioned the curve’s forecasting power, many say it still offers a reliable signal. “Periods with an inverted yield curve are reliably followed by economic slowdowns and almost always by a recession,” said Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco economists, in a research note earlier this month.