Will China’s Flat Yield Curve Flatten Commodities?

Across the Pacific Ocean, China’s yield curve is telling a starkly different story.  After inverting in May and June, its yield curve remains extremely flat and may be signaling an impending slowdown in the world’s second largest economy (Figure 2).  Yield curves are useful but are by no means perfect indicators of economic downturns and should always be taken with a grain of salt.  The question is, how big of a grain of salt when it comes to China’s yield curve?

For starters, in contrast to the United States, debt capital markets are relatively new to China.  They are also less free from government control and are neither as deeply liquid nor as sophisticated as their U.S. counterparts.  Secondly, China hasn’t experienced a recession in decades.  With those two caveats made, China’s yield curve has, over the past decade, done a decent job of anticipating economic acceleration and slowdowns in its pace of growth.  For example, a sharp flatting in the three-year to 10-year (3Y-10Y) spreads in late 2007 anticipated the abrupt 2008 financial-crisis-era slowdown in China’s growth rate from more than 14% to just above 6%.  Likewise, a massive late-2008 upward steepening in the curve presaged a return to double-digit growth that lasted from mid-2009 until early 2012.  A subsequent flattening of China’s yield curve in late 2010 through mid-2012 appeared to lead the country towards slower, sub-7% rates of economic growth.  And, a slight steepening of the curve in 2016 came ahead of a minor uptick in China’s growth. 

The correlation between China’s 3Y-10Y yield curve slope and the change in GDP growth is quite strong, especially when comparing the yield curve to GDP growth four to five quarters in the future (Figure 3).  As such, China’s currently very flat yield curve is strongly suggestive of a major slowdown that could occur in mid-2018.  

We don’t know if the most recent flattening wave in China’s yield curve is correctly pointing to the slower economic growth ahead.  The performance of China’s GDP in the coming quarters should give us more information regarding the veracity of this indicator.  What we do know with certainty is that commodity markets and currencies that are sensitive to the pace of China’s economic growth don’t appear to be the least bit concerned by the recent flattening in its yield curve.  Copper prices, for example, which appear to follow rather than lead Chinese GDP, climbed to their highest level in two-and-a-half years partly because of China banning imports of scrap metal (Figure 4).  The same can be said of iron ore and the currencies of its two biggest exporters, Australia and Brazil (Figures 5 and 6).

The question of China’s yield curve and its usefulness in forecasting acceleration and slowdowns in China’s pace of economic growth takes on added urgency given the country’s colossal debt.  Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, China’s ratio of public and private debt to GDP was below 150%, far below the ratios in the United States and Europe (Figure 7).  In response to the financial crisis, China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), cut rates (Figure 8), steepening the yield curve and encouraging a massive levering up that boosted economic growth rates back into the double digits.  Today, China’s total debt levels are nearly 260% of GDP and exceed those in the United States and Europe where interest rates are much lower.

This doesn’t mean that China’s economy is in danger of an imminent slowdown.  One difference between China today and the Europe and United States of a decade ago is that back then the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve had just completed significant tightening cycles which helped to prick their debt bubbles and bring about the financial crisis.  By contrast, the PBOC has left monetary policy unchanged for the past two years after a 2014-15 easing cycle.  Does a bull flattening in a yield curve send the same economic signal as a bear flattening?  Time will tell.  Even so, the recent crackdown on lending growth in China might be the reason why the yield curve has flattened, and cutting off credit growth might eventually imperil both Chinese growth and the recent rebound in copper, iron ore and the various commodity currencies. 

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