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What the Bond Market Is Telling Us About the Biden Economy

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What is happening is known as a “steepening of the yield curve,” with long-term rates rising as short-term rates hold still. It tends to presage faster economic growth; it is the opposite of a “yield curve inversion,” which is known as a harbinger of recessions.

But the flip side is that the moment appears to have passed when bond markets were giving the government an all-clear signal to do whatever was necessary to boost the economy, essentially making endless funding available at extraordinarily low cost. That could have implications for how the Biden administration approaches the rest of its economic agenda.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has emphasized that low interest rates, which keep the cost of debt service low, are important in her thinking about how much the government can comfortably borrow and spend.

At The New York Times’s DealBook conference on Monday, Ms. Yellen, after noting that the government’s ratio of debt to the size of the economy is much larger than it was before the global financial crisis, said: “Look at a different metric, which is more important, which is what is the cost of that debt. Look for example at interest payments on the debt as a share of G.D.P.,” which is below 2007 levels.

“So I think we have more fiscal space than we used to because of the interest rate environment,” Ms. Yellen told the Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin.

By implication, the further that bond yields rise, and inflation expectations along with them, the more the Biden administration would view their potential spending to be constrained. Congress is now at work on a $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package, which Democratic leaders hope to pass in March. They envision a large-scale infrastructure plan after that.

Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, will face questions from Congress on Tuesday about the central bank’s policies. In other recent appearances, he has emphasized the importance of returning the economy to full health above all other goals, and stressed that inflation has been persistently too low rather than too high over the last decade.

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