How Will a Steepening Yield Curve Impact Markets?

Based on data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the spread between the 10-year and two-year constant maturity Treasury rates increased by 66 basis points – from 0.48 percent in July 2020 to 1.14 percent by February 2021. Due to the Federal Reserve’s open market operations, two-year notes have fallen to near 0 percent, while the 10-year yield has risen higher.

Experienced investors and financial institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis would see this change in the slope of the yield curve of the two U.S. Treasury rates and call it a steepening yield curve. This recent widening spread illustrates what a steepening yield curve looks like and how it impacts the economy moving forward.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis attributes the steepening yield curve to fiscal stimulus and the mass adoption of COVID-19 vaccinations. These two factors could be indicative of future economic growth, including stock market earnings and job gains.

The Yield Curve as Predictor

When it comes to the yield curve and employment, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis explains how the two are related.

Employment growth mirrors the spread in the 10-year and two-year Treasury notes. When the yield curve first steepens, employment numbers might be negative. However, because the steepening yield curve projects increased economic growth, employment growth will soon follow a similar positive growth trajectory.

Historically speaking, the association between the yield curve’s increasing spread and future economic growth keeps its positive trajectory movement over time. This association, based on historical data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has been able to project between 18 months and 36 months of positive future economic growth and approximately 30 months of a positive yield spread and employment growth trend.

While the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is uncertain about much inflation will accompany the economic expansion, it is confident that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will  keep short-term interest rates low to contain borrowing costs and help boost strong financial markets through projected positive economic growth going forward.

Widening Yield Curve and Bank Earnings

As the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) explains, banks benefit from a steep yield curve because they engage in maturity transformation. The New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business defines maturity transformation as when banks borrow short-term and lend long-term. This lets banks profit from the mean of the short- and long-term rates, the so-called term premium. Term premium is how much premium long-term government bond holders realistically anticipate they will receive versus a string of short-term bonds that might have differing interest rates. Buyers of long-term bonds receive payment in exchange for the uncertainty of changing short-term interest rates.

A widening yield curve also can impact a bank’s net interest margin. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, net interest margin is what’s left over for the bank after deducting interest expenses from interest income. Donald Kohn explains that if short-term interest rates increase, interest costs accordingly increase to interest income. This would lower net interest margins as well as the bank’s holdings.

Assuming there are no further negative economic headwinds, history tells us there is a reasonable expectation of an economic resurgence from the coronavirus pandemic.


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