The $16 trillion U.S. Treasuries market is sending an ominous sign about the future of interest rates, inflation and economic growth, both in America and across the world.
And no, I’m not talking about the inverted yield curve.
While it’s true that the spread between two-year and 10-year Treasury yields turned negative on Wednesday for the first time since 2007 — yet another indicator of a potential recession over the next 12 to 18 months — that’s not what should be standing out to investors. After all, the curve from three months to 10 years — the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure — has been inverted at just about every point since late May, and some parts of the curve inverted as early as December. So it’s not as if this latest one came out of nowhere. Short- and long-term yields have always been on a collision course.
Rather, the most noteworthy development in the world’s biggest bond market might just be that the yield on 30-year Treasury bonds fell Wednesday to 2.0139%, the lowest level ever. It surpassed the previous mark of 2.0882% set in July 2016, when investors rushed to havens in the aftermath of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. This time around, a one-two punch of weak economic data from China and Germany pushed investors toward long-dated Treasuries.
At first glance, it seems as if a haven bid is afoot. That’s true, to an extent. But, crucially, it’s important to recognize that the longest-maturity Treasuries are leading the rally. The benchmark 10-year U.S. yield, by contrast, is still about 30 basis points away from its record low. This suggests something beyond just a flight to quality.
Consider the duration of the long bond compared with shorter-maturity notes. The effective duration of a 30-year Treasury is about 21 years, while it’s about 8.7 years for a 10-year Treasury. That means that if yields rose across the curve by 1 percentage point, owners of 10-year notes would suffer an 8.7% loss.
That’s pretty bad. But it’s nothing compared to the long bond, which in that scenario would lose a staggering 21%, meeting the usual definition of a bear market. Even if 30-year yields just rose back to the level they were at two weeks ago, it would mean double-digit losses for anyone who purchased them on Wednesday.
In fact, for bond traders, 30-year Treasuries might just be the riskiest part of the debt market because they can usually be whipsawed by a change in global economic conditions or the outlook for inflation. The prospect for steep losses only intensifies the lower the yield falls.