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Yield Curve (term structure of interest rate)

The term structure of interest rates describes the differing yields to maturity (YTM) on
similar debt securities, with yields typically being higher the longer the period until maturity.
For instance, a U.S. Treasury bill with a 6-month maturity might carry a 4.5 percent yield,
while a 30-year Treasury bond bought at the same time may yield a 5.5 percent return. When
such a difference exists, it is known as a term premium. In the United States, Treasury
securities are generally used to map the term structure of interest rates (i.e., the yield curve)
because they are virtually free of default risk. However, term structures may be computed
and analyzed for any number of interest bearing instruments.

Economists and financial analysts employ term structure analysis, which frequently involves
creating or using mathematical models, for a variety of applications. Some of the most
common include

• forecasting future interest rates

• estimating the cost of capital for discounting future cash flows
• building predictive models of general economic growth (e.g., to project gross domestic
• formulating monetary policy
• estimating future inflation
• understanding dynamics in financial markets
• constructing a portfolio or hedging strategy

The shape of the term structure may change from period to period, being either upward
sloping (i.e., long-term rates higher than short-term rates), downward sloping (i.e., long-term
rates lower than short-term rates), or flat (long-term rates equal to short-term rates). Most
frequently, however, the term structure is upward sloping. In addition to the direction of the
slope, term structure analysis is concerned with the steepness of the slope at any particular
time, where a greater slope signifies a larger disparity between interest rates over some period
of time. The yield curve in Figure I illustrates the nominal term structure (that is, using the
current face value and not adjusting for future inflation) for U.S. Treasury securities based on
current rates as of mid-1999.

For many detailed analyses of term structure, the nominal or observed interest rates (e.g.,
those shown in the figure) are only a starting point, and may not be very meaningful if they
cannot be adjusted for inflation

Figure 1
Nominal Term Structure of U.S. Treasury Interest Rates
somehow. A simple model of the relationship between nominal rates, real rates, and inflation
is given by the formula

where R = the nominal interest rate,

r = the real interest rate net of inflation, and
ft = the inflation rate

For example, if the nominal rate on a bond is 4.5 percent, and a reliable estimate suggests that
inflation over the term will average 2.7 percent, the real rate could be estimated as follows:

Thus, the real rate of return in this case is just 1.75 percent.


Several theories have been developed to explain the shape and behavior of term structures.
While there is no general consensus on these theories among economists, the general trend
has been toward more complex theories that address issues like volatility in bond prices.
Three main perspectives on term structure are the expectations theory, the liquidity
preference theory, and the market segmentation theory.


Expectations theory, also termed expectations hypothesis, is one of the most common
economic theories of term structure. It comes in several variations, the most widely known
being the unbiased expectations theory. The unbiased expectations theory contends that the
long-term rate is the geometric mean of the intervening short-term rates. Further, it suggests
that if the term structure is upward sloping, inflation rates are expected to rise in the future. A
flat term structure, according to the theory, indicates little change in inflation is expected, and
if the term structure is downward sloping, inflation is expected to fall over the period. Another
variation is local expectations theory, which posits that the expected rate of return on future
maturities is actually equal to the short-term risk-free rate (e.g., current Treasury bill yield)
adjusted for inflation.


Concerned with risk-aversion investment behaviors, the liquidity preference theory asserts
that lenders anticipate the potential need to liquidate an investment earlier than expected.
Since for a given change in interest rates, the price volatility of a short-term investment is
lower than the price volatility of a long-term investment, investors prefer to lend short term.
Therefore, they must be offered a risk premium to induce them to lend long-term. Borrowers,
on the other hand, often prefer long-term bonds because they eliminate the risk of having to
refinance at higher interest rates in future periods. Furthermore, the fixed costs of frequent
refinancing can be quite high. Therefore, borrowers are willing to pay the premium necessary
to attract long-tern financing.

The liquidity preference theory, in conjunction with the unbiased expectations theory,
suggests that an upward sloping term structure would be expected to occur more often than a
downward sloping term structure. In fact, as stated earlier, this is the most common situation.


Market segmentation theory (MST) is also known as institutional hedging or habitat theory.
This theory sees two separate maturity habitats or segments—one long and the other short.
Each segment has a schedule of supply (lenders) and demand (borrowers) for loanable funds.
The point at which the demand and supply intersect determines the prevailing rate for that

MST recognizes that there are institutional restrictions on the asset side and hedging
pressures on the liability side which allow for very little substitutability between bonds of
different maturities. Some of these restrictions result from government regulation, company
policy, Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, goals and objectives, and fiscal and
operational considerations.

Commercial banks and nonfinancial corporations generally supply loans in the short-term
segment of the market. Nonfinancial corporations invest (hedge) their excess liquidity until it
is needed to meet cash distributions.

Life insurance companies, pension funds, and the like supply the long term segment in
anticipation of a steady stream of income over the long haul. Their goals and objectives seem
to differ completely from the short-term suppliers except that, for each to be successful over
the long-term, they each must consistently operate within their predetermined habitat.

The flow of funds into these institutions, however, is not static. Customers make withdrawals,
receive payments, and reallocate resources. As a result, the supply schedule in each market
shifts among different institutions. Pensioners may place their monthly funds into
commercial banks. The supply decreases in the long-term segment, thus putting upward
pressure on rates to attract more funds. The increase of capital in commercial banks increases
the supply in the short-term, thus putting downward pressure on short-term rates.

The demand schedules for loanable funds also shifts with changes in the economic cycles. The
demand for long-term funds increases when an upturn in the economy is perceived, putting
upward pressure on rates. As a business cycle matures, the need to expand inventories creates
upward pressures on short-term rates, thus attracting additional supply to the short segment.

The market segmentation model proposes that the spread between long and short-term rates
depends largely on the relative supply and demand for these instruments by transactors in
their preferred habitats.

SEE ALSO : Bonds ; Valuation

[ Roger J. AbiNader ]

Brown, Roger. "Mastering Management: Term Structure of Interest Rates." Financial Times,
3 May 1996.

Dodds, J.C., and J.L. Ford. Expectations, Uncertainty, and the Term Structure of Interest
Rates. Reprint ed. New York: Gregg International Publishers, 1993.

Russell, Steven. "Understanding the Term Structure of Interest Rates." Federal Reserve Bank
of St. Louis Review, July-August 1992.

Van Deventer, Donald R., and Kenji Imai. Financial Risk Analytics: A Term Structure Model
Approach for Banking, Insurance, and Investment Management. Chicago: Irwin Professional
Publishing, 1996.

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