Stock markets around the world sold off yesterday in wicked fashion after the yield on the 10-year Treasury “inverted,” that is, fell below the yield on the 2-year. This has very often been the signal of an upcoming recession. Typically, though, the inversion happens because the Fed is raising short-term interest rates in an attempt to slow too-rapid economic growth. So it’s first and foremost a signal of aggressive Fed tightening, which has in the past almost always gone too far, causing an economic contraction.
In the present case, this is not the situation. The Fed is signalling ease, not tightening. Arguably, arbitrage between long-dated US and EU government bonds is suppressing the 10-year.
While trading robots, unleashed by the inversion, may have been behind the negative stock market action yesterday, my sense is that this is not all that’s going on. I think the market is beginning to step back and focus on the bigger economic picture. It may not like what it sees, namely:
–worldwide, economies are now being hit by a significant negative external shock. It’s not a tripling of the oil price, as was the case in the 1970s, nor a collapsing financial system, as in 2008. Instead, this time it’s the Trump tariffs, which appear to be reducing growth in the US by more than expected (not that anyone had extremely precise thoughts)
–the 2017 tax bill is not paying for itself, as the administration claimed at the time, but is adding to the government deficit instead–implying that further fiscal stimulation is less likely. Giving extra cash to the ultra-rich, who tend to save rather than spend, and keeping tax breaks for industries of the past hasn’t bought much oomph to growth, either
–channeling his inner Herbert Hoover, Mr. Trump is trying to export the weakness he has created by devaluing the dollar.
Stepping back a bit to view the larger picture,
–pushing interest rates near to zero, depreciating the currency and defending the politically powerful industries of the 1970s all seem to mirror the game plan that has produced thirty years of stagnation in Japan and similar results in large parts of the EU. Not pretty.
–on a smaller scale, this brings to mind Mr. Trump’s fundamentally misguided and ultimately disastrous foray into Atlantic City gaming, a venture where he appears to have profited personally but where those who supported and trusted him by owning DJT stock and bonds were financially decimated.
It seems to me that Wall Street is starting to come to grips with two possibilities: that there may be only impulsiveness, and no master plan or end game to the Trump trade wars; and that Congresspeople of all stripes realize this but are unwilling to do anything to thwart the president’s whims. In other words, the real issue being pondered is not recession but Trump-induced secular stagnation.