Monday, October 5, 2015

Is there a recession on the horizon?

The last few days have reminded everyone how quickly markets can turn. In the space of barely a week, the VIX Index, a measure of market volatility, spiked from 13, suggesting extreme complacency, to over 50, evidencing total panic.

Are the fears overblown? Many think so. Some see more to come. What is the reality?

1. The United States is a relatively closed economy

Most U.S. economic activity, nearly 70% of it, comes from domestic consumption. While the country isn’t immune to external shocks, there needs to be a transmission mechanism, such as a spike in oil prices, to impact the domestic economy.

Though a strong dollar and weakness in China have had a negative impact on U.S. corporate earnings, neither has had a material impact on overall U.S. growth. In fact, some of the disruptions from overseas come with silver linings for U.S. consumption and growth: lower rates and cheaper oil.

2. Higher rates are unlikely to derail the recovery

Rates are falling, supporting the housing market. Given low inflation and falling inflation expectations, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is likely, at most, to execute a single rate hike this year. This is in contrast to how most recessions start, with the Fed moving too aggressively and rates rising too rapidly.

3. Cheaper oil is a positive for U.S. consumers

Though the U.S. now has a large domestic energy industry that is feeling the pain from lower oil and the U.S. consumer certainly faces many headwinds, cheaper gasoline should support U.S. consumption.

4. There is little statistical evidence that the U.S. economy is slowing

Prior to the last recession there were several red flags signifying a recession ahead. According to Bloomberg data, leading indicators had been negative for nearly two years, new manufacturing orders slipped into contraction territory in January 2008 and the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI), my preferred metric for forecasting near-term activity, had been consistently in negative territory for most of 2007 and all of 2008.

This time around, lower rates and cheaper gasoline help explain why the numbers look very different, as Bloomberg data show. The CFNAI actually hit a 7-month high in July, leading indicators are up roughly 4 percent year-over-year, and despite the slowdown in China, the new orders component of the U.S. ISM survey is 56.5, consistent with solid if uninspiring growth.

There are two caveats. 

First, in today’s slow growth world, it won’t take much to knock the U.S. economy off of its trajectory. As we’ve seen in recent years, a cold winter is enough to cause at least a temporary contraction.

Second, it’s possible to have a bear market without a recession, though I don’t expect this to occur. But if international market volatility becomes severe enough, it could drag down U.S. stocks, even as the U.S. economy continues to grow.

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