I first suggested the U.S. economy was headed toward a recession more than a year ago, and now others are forecasting the same. I give a business downturn starting this year a two-thirds probability.
The recessionary indicators are numerous. Tighter monetary policy by the Federal Reserve that the central bank now worries it may have overdone. The near-inversion in the Treasury yield curve. The swoon in stocks at the end of last year. Weaker housing activity. Soft consumer spending. The tiny 20,000 increase in February payrolls, compared to the 223,000 monthly average gain last year. Then there are the effects of the deteriorating European economies and decelerating growth in China as well as President Donald Trump’s ongoing trade war with that country.
There is, of course, a small chance of a soft landing such as in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Fed ended its interest-rate hiking cycle and cut the federal funds rate with no ensuing recession. By my count, the other 12 times the central bank restricted credit in the post-World War II era, a recession resulted.
It’s also possible that the current economic softening is temporary, but a revival would bring more Fed restraint. Policy makers want higher rates in order to have significant room to cut in the next recession, and the current 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent range doesn’t give them much leeway. The Fed also dislikes investors’ zeal for riskier assets, from hedge funds to private equity and leveraged loans, to say nothing of that rankest of rank speculations, Bitcoin. With a resumption in economic growth, a tight credit-induced recession would be postponed until 2020.
“Recession” conjures up specters of 2007-2009, the most severe business downturn since the 1930s in which the S&P 500 Index plunged 57 percent from its peak to its trough. The Fed raised its target rate from 1 percent in June 2004 to 5.25 percent in June 2006, but the main event was the financial crisis spawned by the collapse in the vastly-inflated subprime mortgage market.
Similarly, the central bank increased its policy rate from 4.75 percent in June 1999 to 6.5 percent in May 2000. Still, the mild 2001 recession that followed was principally driven by the collapse in the late 1990s dot-com bubble that pushed the tech-laden Nasdaq Composite Index down by a whopping 78 percent.