A Fed Pause and the Flattening Yield Curve

Investors have increasingly positioned for a Federal Reserve (Fed) pause, which could portend a shift in fixed income markets. Fed fund futures are pricing in about a 70% probability that the Fed will keep rates unchanged for the rest of 2019, and the market’s dovish tilt has weighed on short-term rates.

As shown in the LPL Chart of the Day, the 2-year yield has typically followed the fed funds rate since policymakers began raising rates in December 2015. While we expect one or two more hikes this cycle, there is a possibility that the Fed’s December hike was its last, which will likely cap short-term rates.

Short-Term Rates Point to Fed Pause

Short-term yields have outpaced longer-term yields over the past few years, flattening the yield curve and raising concerns that U.S. economic progress may not be able to keep up with the Fed’s tightening. The spread between the 2-year and 10-year yield has fallen negative before every single U.S. recession since 1970.

If the Fed pauses, the curve will likely reverse course and steepen as solid economic growth and quickening (but manageable) inflation drives longer-term yields higher. As mentioned in our Outlook 2019, FUNDAMENTAL: How to Focus on What Really Matters in the Markets, we’re forecasting the 10-year Treasury yield will increase significantly from current levels and trade within a range of 3.25–3.75% in 2019.

“We remain optimistic about U.S. economic growth prospects, and recent data show inflation remains at manageable levels,” said LPL Research Chief Investment Strategist John Lynch. “Because of this, we expect the data-dependent Fed to be less aggressive than initially feared, as policymakers juggle these factors with the impacts of trade tensions and tepid global growth.”

To be clear, investors shouldn’t fear a flattening yield curve given the backdrop of solid economic growth and modest inflation. Historically, the yield curve has remained relatively flat or inverted for years before some recessions started. Since 1970, the United States has entered a recession an average of 21 months after the yield curve inverted.

We’ll be monitoring the Fed’s rate announcement and post-meeting comments for any signals on future policy moves. For more of our thoughts on the Fed’s upcoming meeting and financial markets’ reactions, check out our latest Weekly Economic Commentary and Weekly Market Commentary.

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