This Is a Red Flag for Banks

yield-curve-7-5-19.pngThe yield curve has been in the news because its recent gyrations are seen as a harbinger of a coming recession.

The yield curve is the difference between short- and long-term bond yields. In a healthy economy, long-term bond yields are normally higher than short-term yields because investors take more risk with the longer duration.

In late June, however, the spread between the yield on the three-month Treasury bill and the 10-year Treasury note inverted—which is to say the 10-year yield was lower than the three-month yield.

Inverted Yield Curve.png

An inverted yield curve doesn’t cause a recession, but it signals a set of economic factors that are likely to result in one. It is a sign that investors lack confidence in the future of the economy. Or to put it another way, they have greater confidence in the economy’s long-term prospects than in its near-term outlook.

Long-term yields drop because investors want to lock in a higher return. This heightened demand for long-dated bonds allows the U.S. Department of the Treasury to offer lower yields. The historical average length of recessions is about 18 months, so a 10-year Treasury note takes investors well beyond that point.

Short-terms Treasury yields rise because investors are skittish about the economy’s near-term prospects, which requires the Treasury Department to entice them with higher yields.

It turns out that inverted yield curves have a pretty good track record of predicting recessions within the next 12 months. The last six recessions were preceded by inverted yield curves, although economists point out that inversions in 1995 and 1998 were not followed by subsequent downturns. And more than two years passed between an inversion in December 2005 and the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

Still, an inverted yield curve is an economic red flag for banks. The industry’s performance inevitably suffers in a recession, and even the most conservative institutions will experience higher loan losses when the credit cycle turns.

An inversion is a warning that banks should tighten their credit standards and rein in their competitive impulses. Some of the worst commercial loans are made 12 to 18 months prior to an economic downturn, and they are often the first loans to go bad.

Ironically, if banks tighten up too much, they risk contributing to a recession by cutting off the funding that businesses need to grow. Banks make these decisions individually, of course, but the industry’s herd instinct is alive and well.

It’s possible that the most recent inversion presages a recession in 2020. In its June survey, the National Association of Business Economics forecast the U.S. economy to grow 2.6 percent this year, with only a 15 percent chance of a recession. But they see slower growth in 2020, with the risk of a recession by year-end rising to 60 percent.

This has been an unprecedented time for the U.S. economy and we seem to be sailing through uncharted waters. On July 1, the economy’s current expansion became the longest on record, and gross domestic product grew at a 3.1 percent annualized rate in the first quarter. Unemployment was just 3.6 percent in May—the lowest in 49 years—while inflation, which often rises when the economy reaches full employment because employers are forced to pay higher salaries to attract workers, remained under firm control.

These are historic anomalies, so maybe the old rules have changed.

The Federal Open Market Committee is widely expected to cut the fed funds rate in late July after raising it four times in 2018. That could both help and hurt bankers.

A rate cut helps if it keeps the economic expansion going. It hurts if it makes it more difficult for banks to charge higher rates for their loans. Many banks prospered last year because they were able raise their loan rates faster than their deposit rates, which helped expand their net interest margins. They may not benefit as much from repricing this year if the Fed ends up cutting interest rates.

Is an inverted yield curve a harbinger of a recession in 2020? This economy seems to shrug off all such concerns, but history says yes.

Will Higher Rates Help or Hurt Banks? The Answer Is “Yes.”

interest-rates-12-28-15.pngWill the long awaited hike in interest rates turn out to be good or bad for U.S. banks? The honest answer is probably yes to both possibilities, depending on the size of the bank in question and how the Federal Reserve manages monetary policy over the next couple of years.

In case you just got back from Mars, the Fed announced on December 16 that it was raising the interest rate on overnight borrowings between banks (known as the federal funds rate) by a quarter of a percentage point. The significance of the Fed’s action had less to do with the size of the increase than with the fact that this was the first time the central bank had raised rates in more than seven years. There was a lot of commentary after the rate hike about how this would impact the U.S. economy, although a strong case can be made that this was actually a vote of confidence in the economy’s long-term prospects. The job market has rebounded since the recession ended in June 2009 and unemployment was 5.5 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the recovery is still a work in progress, Fed Chairman Janet Yellen expressed confidence in the economy’s future during a press conference after the rate increase was announced.

Although the Fed’s central mission is to fight inflation, deflation—which is a persistent decline in asset values and consumer prices—has actually been a much greater risk in recent years. Having cut the fed funds rate to nearly zero, and embarking upon a controversial strategy of massive bond purchases to pump money into the economy—known as quantitative easing—there was little more the Fed could do other than wait for the economy to heal itself, which it largely has. Yellen and the Federal Open Market Committee, the 12-member group at the Fed that actually sets monetary policy, has been waiting for an opportunity to begin pushing rates back up. Clearly the time was right.

How will this affect the nation’s banks? The impact of a quarter-point increase in the fed funds rate should be manageable, at least for now. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry has expressed publicly his concern that some banks might be exposed to interest rate risk as the Fed tightens its monetary policy. Large banks, which tend to use variable rate pricing on their commercial and industrial loans, permitting lenders to reprice them if rates go up, will probably experience less economic impact than smaller banks. Many small banks don’t have the same flexibility to reprice their business loans. So as rates go up, smaller banks could actually see their net interest margins tighten even more as their deposit costs rise.

Still, the rate increase had been anticipated, predicted and over analyzed for so long that no bank should have been taken by surprise. Managing interest rate risk is an important task for management and the board, and the industry has been given ample time to prepare.

Ultimately, the impact of higher rates on the banking industry might be determined by how quickly the Fed tightens its policy. The Fed has said that it wants to continue raising rates gradually over the next few years—the exact term it used was to “normalize” rates but how gradually? Hike rates too quickly and some smaller banks could be stressed if they can’t reprice their loan portfolios fast enough to keep pace. But if banks are impacted disproportionately depending on whether they are asset or liability sensitive (being asset sensitive means your loans reprice faster than your deposits, while being liability sensitive means the reverse is true), one thing that would hurt everyone is a slow-down in the economy. Here, I would expect the Fed to be very careful. Having nursed the economy back to health, I think the last thing it wants to do is tip the economy back into a recession by acting too aggressively.

At the very least, banks should know what to expect, and the Fed—which has been very transparent under Yellen—will no doubt let them know when to expect it.