Market-watchers enjoying their first sip of coffee around 6 a.m. might have done a spit-take. For a brief period Wednesday morning, yields on two-year Treasury bonds were higher than those on ten-year ones — a short-term investment was seen as riskier than a long term one, and the return therefore higher — a signal that can portend major trouble for the economy. The last time the yields “inverted” was in 2007, before the “great” recession; the two times before that also directly preceded recessions. The dynamic flipped back before markets opened Wednesday, but stocks nevertheless dropped amid new fears of serious economic trouble ahead.
Before we get too carried away, it’s worth mentioning that there are some who argue the yield curve invert isn’t as reliable a recession indicator as it’s generally made out to be. Former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen struck a note of caution during a Wednesday morning appearance on Fox Business. “Historically, it has been a pretty good signal of recession, and it think that’s when markets pay attention to it, but I would really urge that on this occasion it may be a less good signal,” Yellen said. “The reason for that is there are a number of factors other than market expectations about the future path of interest rates that are pushing down long-term yields.”
But sooner or later, the current economic expansion — by many measures the longest in U.S. history — is going to end. And that’s particularly troubling when you consider how many Americans continue to fare poorly even in the current “strong economy.”
Some 40 percent of American families struggled to cover the cost of food, health care, housing or utilities last year, according to a report from the Urban Institute. A Fed found four in 10 adults couldn’t cover a $400 emergency expense. Even at the current low unemployment rate, about 6 million workers are actively looking for jobs right now — and that doesn’t include part-time workers looking for more hours or those who want work but have stopped looking. Men in the prime of their lives are employed at lower rates than they were before the last recession. Suicide rates are spiking, driving down U.S. life expectancy.
A Gallup poll released in January found 48 percent of Americans felt economic conditions were worsening — a trend that had steadily progressed in preceding months — despite the fundamentals remaining strong. At issue was the fact that the benefits of a strong economy were not being broadly shared by all Americans.
Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell called the dynamic out in two speeches he delivered at the end of last year. “The benefits of this strong economy and sound financial system have not reached all Americans,” he explained. “The aggregate statistics tend to mask important disparities by income, race and geography.”
A recession could take many of those families struggling on the margins and push them squarely into poverty. A family that can’t cover a $400 expense definitely isn’t ready to weather an unexpected layoff. And workers already struggling to find jobs will fare worse if and when the number of openings plummet and the number of unemployed job seekers climbs.
The fact that there are so many Americans still struggling highlights the opportunity President Trump and Republicans missed when they slashed taxes for corporations, businesses and the wealthy, rather than, say, shoring up social safety net accounts, investing in economic development in marginalized communities, funding worker training programs to help them transition to more stable jobs — or even just paying off some of the nation’s debt.
Instead, of course, Republicans promised the working-class and poor would get their share as benefits trickled down in the form of a tax cut-fueled economic explosion. Whether that was a lie or a delusion doesn’t matter now. The economy is showing signs of turning, and the people who saw the least benefit from the latest boom are now the most vulnerable ahead of the next bust.