Longer and Weaker
New York, New York, Maine, and Montana
I’m often asked if recession is coming, and for quite different reasons. Some people worry about their investments. Others are worried about their employment or their kids. Political types wonder if and how recession could affect the next election.
To all those people, for quite some time now, my answer has been: “Yes, but not just yet.” That’s still what I think today, but more of the early warning signals I have used in the past are beginning to flash again.
Looking at the data, I see some good news but also some leading indicators weakening. I see smart people like Dave Rosenberg argue we may already be in recession today. And I see Wall Street not really caring either way, so long as it gets enough rate cuts to prop up asset prices. None of that is comforting.
Today we’ll look around and see what is happening. Because I try to be aware of my own biases, we’ll consider some more optimistic views, too. They may not be convincing, but it’s important to confront them.
As you’ll see, the storm clouds are gathering. Someone is likely to get hit. It might be you.
Let’s begin by reviewing where we are. I think we all agree this recovery cycle has been both longer and weaker than in the past. Any growth is good, of course, and certainly better than the alternative. But the last decade wasn’t a “boom” except in stock and real estate prices.
(Quickly, let’s put to rest the myth that the longer a recovery goes, the greater the likelihood of a recession. That’s a tautology. Recoveries don’t stop because of length. Back to the main point…)
I like this Lance Roberts chart because it shows long-term (5-year) rates of change, over a long period (since 1973) in three key indicators: Productivity, wage growth, and GDP growth. You can see all three are now tepid at best compared to their historical averages.
Source: Lance Roberts
These measures have been generally declining since the early 2000s, suggesting that whatever caused our current problems preceded the financial crisis. But we don’t need to know the cause in order to see the effects which, while not catastrophic (at least yet), are worrisome. And, as Lance points out, a decade of bailouts and dovish monetary policy didn’t revive previous trends.
The growth deceleration is also visible if we zoom into the recent past, via the Goldman Sachs Current Activity Indicator. It peaked in early 2018 (not coincidentally, at least in my opinion, about the time Trump started imposing tariffs on China) and slid further this year. Much of it is due to a manufacturing slowdown, but the consumer and housing segments contributed as well.
Source: Goldman Sachs via The Daily Shot
Again, this doesn’t say recession is imminent. The US economy is still growing by most measures. But the growth is slowing and, unless something restores it, will eventually become a contraction.
My friend Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) makes the extraordinarily valid point: Recessions don’t happen from solid growth cycles. Economies generally move into what he calls a “vulnerable stage” before something pushes them into recession. We all pretty much agree that the US economy, not to mention the global economy, is in a vulnerable stage. It won’t take much of a shock to push it into recession.
That’s bad news for many reasons, but one is that we have a lot of catching-up to do. My friend Philippa Dunne recently highlighted some IMF research on lingering damage from the financial crisis. Per capita real GDP since 1970 is now running about $10,000 per person below where the pre-crisis trend would now have it. Philippa calculated that at current rates, the economy won’t be where it “should” be until the year 2048.
Source: TLR Analytics
A recession will push us even further below that 1970–2007 trend line. And all the zero interest rate policies (ZIRP) and quantitative easing in the world will not get us back on trend, just as it did not after 2008. No matter how fast we try to run, it will get even harder to catch up with that trendline.