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.

How Will the Projected Commodity Super-Cycle Impact Investors in 2021?

Commodity Super-CycleAs the January 2021 World Bank Pink Sheet documented, prices increased month-over-month from November 2020 to December 2020. Highlights include the price of oil jumping by 15 percent. The cost of fertilizer jumped 2.2 percent, grains increased by 3.8 percent and iron ore jumped by 25 percent. While there’s been no official “commodity super-cycle,” according to economists or financial analysts, the trend certainly shows commodity prices increasing.

2020 caught the world off-guard with the coronavirus pandemic, sending the price of oil negative. According to Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, on April 20, 2020, “the prompt contract price” or how much a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) cost for May 2020 deliveries went negative, falling $50. It eventually rebounded to $45 per barrel in November as vaccine optimism began to take hold.

For other commodities, the story was not as bad, signaling what might be another commodity super-cycle. On Aug. 4, 2020, gold broke the $2,000 mark. With central banks and governments spending to support the economy due to the pandemic, it put pressure on global currencies. For example, with the U.S. dollar index dropping nearly 10 percent from March 2020 to August 2020, precious metals such as gold became a hedge against inflation.

Many would assume that commodities surged in part from the economic damage of COVID-19 but, looking at the data, commodities were seeing a resurgence at the start of 2020 – well before the pandemic negatively impacted the global economy.

With data as recent as March 5, the International Monetary Fund shows how commodities changed before the pandemic, during, and as the recovery is underway for the first two months of 2021. Looking at the IMF’s “Actual Market Prices for Non-Fuel and Fuel Commodities” chart, one can see how commodities bottomed out during the pandemic and are showing signs of significant growth.

One metric ton of wheat was $186.10 in 2018, $163.30 in 2019, $185.50 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $173.80, Q2 was $174.80, Q3 was $183.00, Q4 of 2020 was $210.5. Then the first two months of 2021, one metric ton of wheat was $237.90 and $240.80, respectively.

For metals, one metric ton of copper was $6,529.80 in 2018, $6,010.10 in 2019, $6,174.60 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $5,633.90, Q2 was $5,350.80, Q3 was $6,528.60, Q4 of 2020 was $7,185.0. The first two months of 2021, the price was $7,972.10 and $8,470.90, respectively.

Spot Crude priced per barrel in U.S. dollars was $68.30 in 2018, $61.40 in 2019, $41.30 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $49.10, Q2 was $30.30, Q3 was $42.00, and Q4 of 2020 was $43.70. Then the first two months of 2021, Spot Crude was $53.50 and $60.50, respectively.

For the Spot Crude figures, the IMF uses the Average Petroleum Spot Price (APSP), which averages equally three crudes: West Texas Intermediate, Dubai, and Brent.

Will China Lead the Globe’s Super-Cycle?

As the United Nations defines it, a super-cycle is when there’s a paradigm shift toward increased demand, lasting at least a decade and up to 35 years “in a wide range of base material prices.” It focuses on “industrial production and urban development of an emerging economy.”

Looking at China could signal what the globe will follow economically. According to Refinitiv, China saw a positive growth of 2.3 percent of its GDP in 2020, compared to the global average of -3.5 percent. As the world emerges from the pandemic, it will undoubtedly consume more commodities. When it comes to 2021 GDP expectations for China, the World Bank expects the country to grow by 8 percent to 9 percent.

Looking forward to 2022, Eikon predicts that China’s GDP will grow by 1.6 percent more than the rest of the world, and 3.1 percent higher than America’s GDP expected growth rate in 2022.

Much like the pandemic was not in anyone’s economic forecast, if the global economy is in a commodity super-cycle, savvy investors will be ahead of the curve if a super-cycle materializes.