The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield on Tuesday morning squeaked above 3 percent for the first time since 2014.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury is one of the most closely watched financial measures in the world. Its hallowed status is up there with the U.S. dollar, the price of gold and the price of oil.
Many view it as a proxy for longer-term growth and inflation expectations and thus a signal for where the U.S. economy is headed.
The 10-year has been in the news in recent months because its yield — or what it pays its owner for buying it — has been flirting with 3 percent. Financial markets take a deep gulp when they hear the 10-year yield and 3 percent in the same sentence.
The big worry lately has been that the 10-year yield will cross 3 percent, making it a better investment than the riskier stock market. The thinking goes like this: Cross 3 percent, and investors will stage a stock market sell-off and pour their cash into Treasurys.
And then? Bye-bye bull market.
“It’s a psychological level for the markets because we haven’t seen 3 percent 10-year yields since 2013,” said Brett Ryan, an economist with Deutsche Bank.
“The 10-year is potential competition for stocks,” said David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland.
Yield is a simple concept. It is the current income return you receive when, for instance, you own a bond, as measured by a percentage. If the bond you bought for $1,000 pays you $20 per year — that’s a 2 percent annual yield.
Money wonks believe the up-or-down movement of its yield is a crystal ball that foretells inflation, recession, bull markets, bear markets, home prices, corporate profits — maybe even who will win next year’s Super Bowl.
The level itself doesn’t signal recession. What matters is the difference between the two-year yield and the 10-year yield. Right now, the difference between them is about half of a percentage point. The risk of recession rises as the difference gets closer to zero.
The 10-year rate was within a dollar bill’s width of 3 percent Monday and touched 3 percent by Tuesday morning. Wall Street watchers say the 10-year yield will have to climb beyond 3 percent before the stock market flinches.
“The 10-year Treasury would need to move over 4 percent before it became serious competition for the stock market, given the level of earnings per share we are currently seeing for the S&P 500 companies,” said Daniel P. Wiener of Adviser Investments, based in Newton, Mass. “By that time, if earnings are higher, then the yield would have to go even higher than 4 percent.”
Stock markets so far are not showing too much nervousness.
“There has been no flight to the exits out of stocks because the 10-year yield is going to 3 percent,” said David Santschi of TrimTabs, an investment research firm. “Equity flows have been roughly flat this month. People don’t seem really concerned that borrowing costs are rising.”
Stocks finished down slightly on Monday in the face of the rising yield and the major indexes lost about 1.5 percent on Tuesday after the 10-year yield crossed 3 percent.
“It’s not like an automatic trigger for the stock market,” Ryan said. “Above 3 percent, it becomes more attractive to own, but it is still the risk-free asset. It’s not just the level of the yield, but the speed. If rates hang out around 3 percent, that’s fine. If we get to 3.25 next week, then that could bring dislocation to equity markets.”
There are tens of billions of dollars in 10-year Treasurys across the planet at any given day, with banks, mutual funds and foreigners among the largest holders. The bonds are traded on the secondary market. The yields react to supply and demand, with yields rising when prices decline and yields dropping when the 10-year gets more expensive.
“The 10-year is very visible,” Kass said. “Financial markets tend to focus on the 10-year rate as a form of long-term interest rates.”
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If investors think that the economy and inflation will be agreeable enough over the next decade that they can park money in a 10-year Treasury, they will buy it. That demand will send yields lower. If, on the other hand, investors think we are headed for higher inflation and a rocky economy, they will put their money into short-term Treasurys rather than long-term. That reduces demand, and the price drops, sending yields higher.
The 10-year’s stature as a benchmark comes from being perceived as risk-free, which makes it the one asset to which all others — stocks, bonds, mortgages, etc. — are pegged. Stocks are riskier, so they have a higher expected return. Treasurys are seen as risk-free because they are backed by the U.S. government and its ability to tax. Stocks and corporate bonds can fail.
Three percent is viewed as a key threshold for a number of reasons. But the main reasons are mortgage rates, the stock market and corporate debt.
Higher yields also foretell higher borrowing costs for corporations, which can cut into profits and investment. The result can be a cascade of layoffs, stagnant growth, recession and lower stock prices.
“Mortgage rates are closely linked to the level of the 10-year yield,” Ryan said. “If the 10-year ticks higher, mortgage costs are going to go higher. That impacts the housing market, and it’s one of the main channels the 10-year yield translates into the real economy.”
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