Former Fed Chair Yellen says bond market could be hinting at need for a rate cut — not a recession

Key Points
  • Yellen, who led the Fed from 2014 to 2018, was asked at a Hong Kong conference about the yield curve and whether it signals a looming downturn.
  • "My own answer is no, I don't see it as a signal of recession," Yellen says.
  • Yellen also says she doesn't see a recession as "particularly likely" though she stresses that the U.S. economy is indeed slowing.
Janet Yellen
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

HONG KONG — Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, said Monday the recent triggering of a recession indicator in the U.S. bond markets could signal the need for an interest rate cut and not a prolonged economic downturn.

Stocks tumbled Friday after an inversion of the so-called yield curve in the U.S. bond markets. This occurs when short-term rates surpass their longer-term counterparts, which hurts bank lending profits and is considered a warning sign of recession.

Yellen, who led the Fed from 2014 to 2018, was asked at a Hong Kong conference about the yield curve inversion and whether it signals a looming downturn.

"My own answer is no, I don't see it as a signal of recession," Yellen said during a question and answer session at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference.

"In contrast to times past, there's a tendency now for the yield curve to be very flat," she said, adding that it's now easier for it to invert — which traditionally meant investors had become concerned about a future downturn. In technical terms, it's when the spread between the three-month Treasury bill yield and the 10-year note rate turns negative, which happened on Friday for the first time since 2007.

"And in fact it might signal that the Fed would at some point need to cut rates, but it certainly doesn't signal that this is a set of developments that would necessarily cause a recession," Yellen added.

Yellen, a distinguished resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said she doesn't see a recession as "particularly likely" though she did stress that the U.S. economy is indeed slowing.

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"The U.S. is certainly experiencing a slowing of growth," she said. The economy expanded 3.1 percent last year but the Fed's most recent outlook is for growth of 2.1 percent this year, which Yellen said is close to potential.

"So that's not a dangerous situation," she said. "So, yes, growth is slowing, but I don't see it slowing to a level that will cause a recession."

Under her tenure, the Fed in December 2015 raised its key interest rate for the first time n nearly a decade. It was the start of an effort to hike rates back to a point where policymakers could have some leeway to reduce them again in the face of any future downturn in the world's largest economy. The Fed under her successor, Chairman Jerome Powell, had continued to nudge rates higher.

But the policymaking Federal Open Market Committee decided last week in a unanimous decision to hold them steady, indicating that it's likely that no more increases will come this year in a sharp dovish turn from projections in December. The FOMC in a post-meeting statement indicated it would remain "patient" before adopting any further rate increases.