Have Peripheral Colds Caused a U.S. Recession Flu?
At the trough of the recent correction, which was underscored by a brief but sharp -1,100 point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Dow had temporarily corrected by -16.2% from its peak in May, earlier this year. Whether we retest or break below the 15,370 level again is debatable, but with the Dow almost reaching “bear market” (-20%) territory, it begs the question of whether the U.S. has caught a recessionary flu from the ill international markets’ colds?
Certainly, several factors have investors concerned about a potential recession, including the following: slowing growth and financial market instability in China; contraction of -0.4% in Japan’s Q2 GDP growth; and turmoil in emerging markets like Russia and Brazil. With stock prices down more than double digits, it appears investors factored in a significant chance of a recession occurring. Although the Tech Bubble of 2000 and generational Great Recession of 2008-2009 were no ordinary recessions, your more garden variety recessions like the 1980 and 1990 recessions resulted in peak to trough declines in the Dow Jones Industrial Average of -20.5% and -22.5%, respectively.
In other words, with the Dow recently down -16.2% in three months, investors were awfully close to factoring in a full blown U.S. recession. Should this be the case? In answering this question, one must certainly understand the stock market is a predicting or discounting mechanism. However, if we pull out our economic thermometers, right now there are no definitive indicators sending us to the recessionary doctor’s office. Here are a number of the indicators to review.
Yield Curve Indicator
For starters, let’s take a look at the yield curve. Traditionally, in a normally expanding economy, we would normally expect inflationary expectations and a term premium for holding longer maturity bonds to equate to a positively shaped yield curve (e.g., shorter term 2-Year Treasuries with interest rates lower than 30-Year Treasuries). Interestingly, historically an inverted yield curve (shorter term interest rates are higher than longer term rates) has been an excellent leading indicator and warning signal for unhealthy stock market conditions forthcoming.
As you can see in the charts below, before the two preceding recessions, in the years 2000 and 2007, we experienced an inverted yield curve that served as a tremendous warning signal in advance of significant downdrafts in stock prices. If you fast forward to today, the slope of the yield curve is fairly steeply sloped – nowhere close to inverted. When the yield curve flattens meaningfully, I will become much more cautious.
The Oil Price Indicator
There is substantial interest and focus on the recessionary conditions in the energy sector, and more specifically the high yield (junk bond) issuers that could suffer. It is true that high yield energy credit spreads have widened, but typically this sector’s pain has been the economy’s gain, and vice versa. The chart below shows that the gray shaded recessionary time periods have classically been preceded by spikes upward in oil prices. As you know, we currently are experiencing the opposite trend. Over the last 12 months, WTI oil prices have been chopped by more than half to $45 per barrel. This is effectively a massive tax for consumers, which should help support the economy.
Other Macro Statistics
Toward the top of any recession-causing, fear factor list right now is China. Slowing economic growth and an unstable Shanghai stock market has investors nervously biting their nails. Although China is the 2nd largest global economy behind the U.S., China still only accounts for about 15% of overall global economic activity, and U.S. exports to the region only account for about 0.7% of our GDP, according to veteran Value investor Bill Nygren. If on top of the China concern you layer a fairly strong U.S. labor market, an improving housing market (albeit slowly), and a recently revised higher GDP statistics, you could probably agree the economic dashboard is not signaling bright red flashing lights.
There is never a shortage of concerns to worry about, including most recently the slowing growth and stock market turbulence in China. While volatility may be implying sickness and international markets may be reaching for the Kleenex box, the yield curve, oil prices, and other macroeconomic indicators are signaling the outlook for U.S. stock remains relatively healthy.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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