Headlines blared the latest recession warning today, this time from David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff & Associates. The culprit will be the Fed:
“Cycles die, and you know how they die?” Rosenberg told the Inside ETFs Canada conference in Montreal on Thursday. “Because the Fed puts a bullet in its forehead.”
I get this. I buy the story that the Fed is likely to have a large role in causing the next recession. Either via overtightening or failing to loosen quickly enough in response to a negative shock.
And I truly get the frustration of being a business cycle economist in the midst of what will almost certainly be a record-breaking expansion. Imagine a business cycle economist going year after year without a recession to ride. It’s like Tinkerbell without her wings.
But the timeline here is wrong. And timing is everything when it comes to the recession call. Recessions don’t happen out of thin air. Data starts shifting ahead of a recession. Manufacturing activity sags. Housing starts tumble. Jobless claims start rising. You know the drill, and we are seeing any of it yet.
For a recession to start in the next twelve months, the data has to make a hard turn now. Maybe yesterday. And you would have to believe that turn would be happening in the midst of a substantial fiscal stimulus adding a tailwind to the economy through 2019. I just don’t see it happening.
As far as the Fed is concerned, I don’t think we are seeing evidence that policy is too tight. The flattening yield curve indicates policy is getting tighter, to be sure. But as far as recession calls are concerned, it’s inversion or nothing. And even inversion alone will not definitively do the trick. I think that if the Fed continues to hike rates or sends strong signals of future rate hikes after the yield curve inverts, then you go on recession watch.
With inflation still tame, however, the Fed may very well flatten the yield curve with two more hikes and then take a step back. To be sure, it will be hard to stand down or even reverse course on the yield curve alone. After all, the yield curve is a long leading indicator. It will be the outlying data. But there is a reasonable chance the Fed will not tempt fate in the absence of a very real inflationary threat.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am wrong and the Fed inverts the yield curve in December of this year, keeps hiking, and doesn’t try to reverse course until it is obviously too late. Furthermore, assume the inverted yield curve foreshadows a recession like in past cycles. That means at least a year and maybe two before a recession actually hits. So the minimum timeline to recession is 18 months, even if everything goes right (or is it wrong?).
Also, we really shouldn’t discount the possibility that the Fed pauses even before a yield curve inversion. A market disruption from a trade war or external financial crisis that threatens to spill over into Main Street could put the Fed back on the defensive. So the whole story that the Fed will soon kill this expansion is a bit premature.
Bottom Line: The business cycle is not dead. The future holds another recession. But many, many things have to start going wrong in fairly short order to bring about a recession in the next twelve months. It would probably have to be an extraordinary set of events outside of the typical business cycle dynamics. A much better bet is to expect this expansion will be a record breaker.