The Independent Market Observer

Is China Throwing Out Recession Signals?

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA®, CFP®

Find me on:

This entry was posted on May 12, 2017 1:33:40 PM

and tagged Commentary

Leave a comment

yield curveAfter writing yesterday’s post, it occurred to me that it would make sense to apply the measures I use for the U.S. to other economies where problems could affect us. Interestingly enough, just as I thought that, articles pointed out that one of my key metrics—the yield curve, which represents how much central banks are stimulating an economy—had just flashed a trouble signal in China.

When the yield curve signals trouble

The yield curve is a graph of interest rates for different time periods. Briefly, in a normal economy, long-term rates should be higher than short-term rates. This is because a longer time period is inherently more uncertain, and investors should demand a higher return to compensate for that uncertainty. Sometimes, though, short-term rates rise above longer-term ones, as investors get discouraged about longer-term opportunities at the same time as current troubles rise. This results in what is known as an inversion. As you might imagine, an inverted yield curve is usually a sign of trouble. I pay attention to this metric for just that reason.

Seeing an inverted yield curve in China sent up a red flag. But is that red flag a true signal of trouble, or, as I discussed yesterday, is it only noise?

The verdict on China’s yield curve inversion

It’s probably noise. Yields inverted in the 5-year and 10-year time periods. Similar analyses here in the U.S. usually use the 2-year period, or even shorter, for comparison. (I use the 3-month rate.) The difference between 5- and 10-year periods is simply less indicative of trouble than a longer time spread would be. If we compare China’s 10-year rate against a shorter period, we get no inversion. Apples to apples, no signal.

The inversion was also short-lived. Looking this morning, 10-year rates are back above 5-year rates. While a short-term blip is worth noting, any meaningful signal would last more than a couple of hours. An economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat, and short-term blips are almost always noise.

What about other economic signals in China?

When examining how meaningful the yield curve signal is, we also need to consider whether other, unrelated indicators might also be signaling trouble. Applying the rest of my usual economic metrics to China suggests, again, that this one looks like noise.

Consumer confidence, for example, is up significantly in China over the past several years, to very high levels. Here in the U.S., rising consumer confidence is rarely a signal of trouble. Quite the contrary. I would expect the same logic to apply in China, though we don’t have the historical data to draw the same conclusions as we can here in the U.S. Chinese business confidence is also high, consistent with past years.

Job growth, the final and most important indicator, is not as cheerful, however. Although Chinese employment grew throughout 2016, it has slowed substantially and is now barely positive. This would be a significant warning sign here in the U.S., suggesting the economy is about ready to roll over into recession. In China, again, we don’t have the data to support such a conclusion, but I think it would be a reasonable one. So, while China does not appear to be in recession yet, it’s definitely in the red zone according to this signal.

Note how we can take a news story that on its face is scary—the inversion of the Chinese yield curve—and turn it into useful information by applying some analysis. Again, while China is not currently in recession, weakness in job growth is signaling that trouble might be ahead. When could it happen? Given signals for the U.S. economy, I believe the immediate risk will rise substantially if or when consumer and business confidence starts to flag.

If we worry about China—and we should—we now know what to watch. That alone puts us as investors way ahead of those who simply read the headlines.

  Subscribe to the Independent Market Observer

Subscribe via Email

New call-to-action
Crash-Test Investing

Hot Topics

New Call-to-action



see all



The information on this website is intended for informational/educational purposes only and should not be construed as investment advice, a solicitation, or a recommendation to buy or sell any security or investment product. Please contact your financial professional for more information specific to your situation.

Certain sections of this commentary contain forward-looking statements that are based on our reasonable expectations, estimates, projections, and assumptions. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve certain risks and uncertainties, which are difficult to predict. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss in declining markets.

The S&P 500 Index is a broad-based measurement of changes in stock market conditions based on the average performance of 500 widely held common stocks. All indices are unmanaged and investors cannot invest directly in an index.

The MSCI EAFE (Europe, Australia, Far East) Index is a free float‐adjusted market capitalization index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets, excluding the U.S. and Canada. The MSCI EAFE Index consists of 21 developed market country indices.

One basis point (bp) is equal to 1/100th of 1 percent, or 0.01 percent.

The VIX (CBOE Volatility Index) measures the market’s expectation of 30-day volatility across a wide range of S&P 500 options.

The forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio divides the current share price of the index by its estimated future earnings.

Third-party links are provided to you as a courtesy. We make no representation as to the completeness or accuracy of information provided on these websites. Information on such sites, including third-party links contained within, should not be construed as an endorsement or adoption by Commonwealth of any kind. You should consult with a financial advisor regarding your specific situation.


Please review our Terms of Use

Commonwealth Financial Network®