What Is the Yield Curve? How It's Used as a Market Indicator

By Colin Dodds · October 10, 2023 · 7 minute read

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What Is the Yield Curve? How It's Used as a Market Indicator

The yield curve itself is a basic graph of the interest rates paid by bonds at different maturities (e.g., two-year, five-year, 10-year bonds). But many investors interpret the slope of the yield curve as a harbinger of what might lie ahead for the U.S. economy.

The yield curve can be an indicator of economic expectations, but not a reliable predictor of events. That said, analysis of historical data patterns shows that understanding the yield curve can be useful for investors.

4 Types of Yield Curves and What They Mean

The yield curve is published by the Treasury every trading day. It reflects the yield or interest rates paid by Treasury securities for one-month through 30-year maturities. The Treasury’s figures also help to set the rates for other debt securities on the market, as well as mortgages and other loan rates offered by banks.

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What is a yield curve, and what does it look like? Here are four common yield-curve patterns and what each might mean for investors.

1. Normal Yield Curve

Under ordinary conditions, longer-maturity bonds will offer a higher yield to maturity than shorter-term bonds. For that reason, the “normal” yield curve shape has an upward slope, with longer-maturity debt providing investors with higher interest rates.

For example, imagine that a two-year bond offers a yield of 0.5%, a five-year bond offers 1.0%, a 10-year offers 1.8%, and a 30-year offers a yield of 2.5%. When these points are connected on a graph, they exhibit a shape of a normal yield curve. It is the most common type of curve, and tends to indicate a positive economic outlook.

2. Steep Yield Curve

Just as a normal upward-sloping bond yield curve is associated with periods of economic expansion, a steep yield curve is seen by investors as an even stronger sign of economic growth on the horizon — as future yields rise higher to take possible inflation into account.

Another reason that a steep yield curve might indicate periods of stronger growth is that lenders are willing to make short-term loans for relatively low interest rates, which tends to stimulate economic activity and growth.

In late 2008, the yield curve became notably steeper, as the Federal Reserve eased the money supply in response to the financial crisis. A bull market followed that lasted over a decade, from 2009 to 2020.

3. Inverted Yield Curve

Bond yield curves aren’t always normal or upward-sloping. With an inverted yield curve, for instance, the yields for shorter-term debt are higher than the yields for longer-term debt. A quick look at an inverted yield curve will show it curving downward as bond maturities lengthen, which can be a sign of economic contraction.

Since 1955, an inverted yield curve has preceded most, if not all U.S. recessions that have occurred. Usually, the curve inverts about two years before a recession hits, so it can be an early warning sign.

The reason is that, historically, an inverted yield curve can reflect significant shifts in the economy or financial markets. The yield curve might invert because investors expect longer-maturity bonds to offer lower rates in the future, for example. One reason for those lower yields is that often during an economic downturn investors will seek out safe investments in the form of longer-duration bonds, which has the effect of bidding down the yields that those bonds offer.

Inverted yield curves are uncommon, and sometimes decades will pass between them. In October 2007, the yield curve flattened (which can precede an inverted yield curve) precipitating the global financial crisis.

4. Flat and Humped Yield Curves

There are also flat or humped bond yield curves, in which the yields of shorter- and longer-term bonds are very similar. While a flat yield curve is self-explanatory, a humped yield curve is one in which bonds with intermediate maturities may offer slightly higher yields. Those higher yields in the middle give the curve its hump.

Investors see flat or humped yield curves as a sign of a coming shift in the broader economy. They often occur at the end of a period of strong economic growth, as it begins to spur inflation and slow down. But these yield curves don’t always portend a downturn.

Sometimes a flat or humped bond yield curve may appear when the markets expect a central bank, such as the Federal Reserve, to increase interest rates. Flat and humped markets can also emerge during periods of extreme uncertainty, when investors and lenders want similar yields regardless of the duration of the debt.

What Is the Current Yield Curve?

2y10y treasury spread 1977-2022

When investors ask, What is the yield curve?, it’s important to remember that it’s not a fixed market factor, but one that changes daily.

Here’s an example: On October 5, 2021, the three-month Treasury bill paid an interest rate of 0.04%, while the two-year bond paid an interest rate of 0.28%, the five-year bond paid an interest rate of 0.98%, the 10-year bond paid an interest rate of 1.54%, and the 30-year bond paid an interest rate of 2.10%.

The yield curve on that day, with lower short-term yields that rise as the duration of the debt security grows longer, is a good example of a “normal” yield curve.

The difference between the 0.04% yield offered by the three-month T-bill and the 2.10% yield offered by the 30-year bond on Oct. 5, 2021, was 2.06%. At the beginning of August, the three-month Treasury bill paid an interest rate of 0.05%, while the 30-year Treasury bill paid an interest rate of 1.86%. The difference at that time was 1.81%. So it would be accurate to say that the yield curve is normal, and grew somewhat steeper over the course of about two months.

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How Investors Can Interpret the Yield Curve

The yield curve has value for investors as an indicator of a host of economic factors, including inflation, growth, and investor sentiment. While it can’t be used to make exact predictions, the yield curve can help investors anticipate potential economic changes, and weigh their financial choices in light of this. The yield curve can’t necessarily help investors choose individual stocks, but it can be of use when formulating broad investment strategies.

For example, if a flat or inverted yield curve indicates the possibility of an economic slowdown, then it might be a good time to purchase the stocks of companies that have historically done well during economic downturns, such as providers of consumer staples.

But if the yield curve is steep – indicating economic growth and higher interest rates – it may be worth considering adding more luxury-goods makers and entertainment companies to your portfolio.

The yield curve also has ramifications for real estate investors. A flat or inverted curve could warn of a slowdown and a drop for current real estate prices. But a steepening of the yield curve can mean just the opposite for real estate.

Changes to the yield curve have the most profound implications for fixed-income investors, however, as steep yield curves indicate that inflation is on the way. And inflation has the effect of eroding the yields on existing bonds, as the purchasing power of those yields goes down.

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Fixed-income investors also face unique challenges in the rare event of a yield curve inversion. Many investors are accustomed to earning a higher yield in exchange for longer debt maturities, but in an inverted curve, they can no longer find that premium. As a result, many of these investors will opt for shorter-term debt instruments, which offer competitive rates, instead of getting locked into the low rates offered by longer-term bonds.

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The Takeaway

The yield curve may be just a basic graph of the interest rates paid by bonds of different maturities, but historical data shows that the yield curve can also be a useful economic indicator for investors. You don’t want to take it too far and assume the yield curve can predict economic events, but since the yield curve is published every day by the U.S. Treasury, it can capture certain economic shifts in real time.

With a normal yield curve, short-term bond rates are lower than long-term bond rates, and the curve swoops upward — which is a positive economic indicator, suggesting steady economic growth and investor sentiment. When short- and longer-term bond rates are similar, and the yield curve flattens, that can indicate that some economic changes may be afoot. Historically, when the yield curve inverts and short-term bond rates are higher than long-term rates, that can signal a recession might be down the road.

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