There may be tough times ahead for world economy

Many years ago my 10-year old nieces and nephews employed a code comprised of three words to describe something none of us cared for.

"Me no likey" was used to give the thumbs down to a poor pizza served in a restaurant. It was deployed, too, to pour scorn on various sporting events that we were bored at. A quick "me no likey" was a ticket to getting away at speed.

That phrase entered my head last week upon hearing another three-worded term that sounded a bit out of the ordinary.

"Inverted yield curve" is one of those convoluted word plays that only navel gazing economists can dream up.

It is, however, an important signal from financial markets that all of us should sit up and consider.

The inverted yield curve describes a point when the yield - or interest rate - on a long-dated government bond falls below that of the yield on short-term bonds.

It, effectively, means it is more expensive to borrow short-term than long-term, a phenomenon that points to tough times ahead.

On its own, the inverted yield curve in US bonds might not be too disturbing and could be interpreted as a phenomenon that may not last long.

It must, however, be assessed next to central bank policies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the ECB spooked markets by making it clear interest rates would not be rising for the foreseeable future while its efforts to unwind quantitative easing were put on hold.

At the same time, the Federal Reserve in the US made clear it’s prior plan to raise interest rates a number of times during 2019 has now been cancelled.

These decisions were communicated with the same poker face that central bankers always employ; one that presents policy shifts that the general public barely notice.

There should, instead, be klaxon sounds and red flashing lights accompanying these changes. For 10 years the world has been living with what are actually emergency monetary policies across the world.

Record low interest rates were instigated in the wake of the global financial crisis while the taps of money supply were turned on to full.

In the past year, the key US and European central banks have attempted to gradually reverse gears but that process has come to a relatively quick stop.

The fear must be that central bankers see a set of data the rest of us have yet to observe. That data must point to a sharper economic slowdown than was worried about during most of 2018.

If true, there could be tougher quarters ahead for the world economy as this saga unfolds.

Inside the bubble that is Ireland these economic storm clouds are barely recognised. In some respects it feels as if we are partying like its 2007.

Employment is strong, wage demands are picking up and conspicuous consumption has reared its ugly head. That drags with it a rising appetite for, and supply of, borrowings.

With record low interest rates the temptation to borrow in pursuit of the Joneses is back with a vengeance.

At times like this I reach back for wise advice from two sources. The Germans have a word for debt - schuld - which also translates as guilt.

That helps explain why debt in Germany has the appeal of nitroglycerin for many people.

The second source was my mother. She almost broke out in a rash when discussing debt. She understood that debt servicing was fine in a rising economy but became very dangerous in a downturn.

The central bankers are doing things that point to a downturn. Me no likey.

- Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate booking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.

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