U.S. Treasury securities across the maturity spectrum are reaching yield resistance levels that have proven for decades to be extremely valuable to investors engaged in technical analysis. We believe it is possible the reaction of interest rates to these resistance levels will hold important clues about future economic activity and the direction of the stock market. While it is certainly possible that Treasury yields meander and prove these decade-old technical levels meaningless, strategic planning for what is certainly a heightened possibility of large asset moves is always wise.
Many investment pundits are scoffing at the recent move higher in Treasury yields. Since record low yields were set in mid-2016, the ten-year U.S. Treasury note has risen by about 1.50%. When compared to increases of three to five percent that occurred on numerous occasions over the last 30 years, it’s hard to blame them for barely raising an eyebrow at a mere 1.50%. What these so-called experts fail to grasp, is that the amount of financial and economic leverage has grown rapidly over the last thirty years. As such, it now takes a much smaller increase in interest rates to slow economic growth, raise credit concerns, reduce the ability to add further debt and generate financial market volatility.
The 1.50% increase in interest rates over the last two years is possibly equal to or even more significant than those larger increases of years past. In this article, we look back at how the economy and assets performed in those eras. We then summarize potential economic and market outcomes that are dependent on the resolution of current yields against their resistance levels.
In October 1981, following a period of strong inflation and dollar weakness, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note peaked at 15.84%. Since those daunting days, bond yields have gradually declined to the lowest levels in U.S. recorded history. To put the duration of this move in context, no investment professional under the age of 60 has worked in a true secular bond bear market.
During this long and durable decline in interest rates, there were periods were interest rates moved counter to the trend. In some cases, moves higher in yield were sudden and the effects on the economy and financial markets were meaningful. In our article 1987, we showed how an increase of over 3.00% on the ten-year Treasury note over a ten month period was a leading cause of Black Monday, the largest one-day loss in U.S. stock market history.
Interestingly, historical short-term peaks in yield have been technically related. When graphed, the peaks and troughs can be neatly connected with a linear downward sloping channel, which has proven reliable support and resistance for yields. The graphs below show the decline in yields and the respective channels for Two, Five and Ten-year Treasury notes. Our focus is on the resistance yield line, the upper line of the channels.
The composite graph below shows all three securities together with labeled boxes that correspond to commentary beneath the chart for each era.
All Graphs Courtesy: Stockcharts
#1 1986-1990- This period followed a significant reduction of yields as then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker (1979-1987) successfully employed higher interest rates to tame double-digit inflation and restore faith in the U.S. Dollar. Despite inflation being “conquered” and interest rates dropping meaningfully, interest rates reversed course and began moving higher again. In the first ten months of 1987, the ten-year U.S. Treasury yield rose approximately 3.00%. Higher yields coupled with several other factors produced Black Monday, a 22% decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average that is still the largest one-day loss on a percentage basis in U.S. equity market history. Following the 1987 stock market turmoil, yields receded. This decline was short-lived, and by early 1989, yields had exceeded the levels of 1987. Marked by the Savings & Loan Crisis, a recession followed from July 1990 to March 1991 in which GDP declined by 5.3%. From peak to trough, the S&P 500 declined 20%, and the 10-year Treasury note yield would decline by 3.75% over the next three years.