My previous posts, Is the US heading into a recession? seems to have a caused a flurry of comments. I remain of the view that the US economy will just scrape through 2008 without one. Admittedly, the run of data since that post has hardly been encouraging, with a plunge in the ISM (signalling a likely manufacturing recession) and some very weak non-farm payroll numbers.
Richard Berner & David Greenlaw from Morgan Stanley put the case for the prosecution in their recent piece: Is Recession Now in the Price?
Incoming data suggest that tighter credit has pushed the US economy to the brink, and we reiterate our call for a mild US recession in the first half of 2008. Weak employment data and slowing in export orders reported by purchasing managers undermine the case that a healthy consumer and strong global growth would forestall a downturn. Moreover, the ongoing housing recession is deepening, declines in capital goods bookings hint that business equipment spending will contract, and inventory liquidation seems likely. ...Most of the weakness is concentrated in the first half of the year; we project the economy will contract by about ¾% annualized in the first half of 2008, compared with 0.3% last month.
I agree the weakness will be in the first half, as I argued in my post 2008: No US recession. We might even see one negative quarter; but I'd be surprised if we see two consecutive declines. And that is the standard definition of a recession. My views are closer to those of Stefan Schneider at Deutsche Bank. In today's talking point he puts forward the DB baseline:
The US economy staggers for a few quarters, but does not actually collapse. The USD recovers in line with the US economy and the pricing process on the oil market returns to “more reasonable” ranges. In this environment the emerging markets grow somewhat less than last year but still quite strongly, at roughly 6½%.
Like Deutsche, I agree most of the risk are to the downside, and I could well be proved wrong. But don't underestimate the Fed. Today's dovish comments by Ben Bernanke show a preparedness to take whatever steps are deemed necessary:
...we stand ready to take substantive additional action as needed to support growth and to provide additional insurance against downside risks.
Meanwhile, the Economist today published its's latest R-word index. While it is certainly spiking upwards, we are not in 2001-territory just yet.
The Economist's informal R-word index is also sounding alarms. Our gauge counts how many stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times use the word “recession” in a quarter. This simple formula pinpointed the start of recession in 1981 and 1990 and 2001. In the past few years the R-word index has been extremely low. It began to rise in the second half of 2007 and, measured at a quarterly rate, has soared in early 2008 (see chart). Although the number of stories is still lower than before previous recessions, the recent jump—if sustained for a quarter—is similar to that which preceded the 2001 downturn
"A lot of things are teetering on the edge of tipping toward a recession," said Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute.
...The ECRI's leading U.S. index ticked higher in the latest week. But the annualized growth rate fell to -6.2%, the weakest since Nov. 16, 2001, at the end of the last recession. The index's components include housing activity, job growth, interest rates, investor confidence, money supply growth, corporate profits and productivity.
"If these downward trends in the leading indicators continue for much longer, we will end up with a recession," Achuthan said. F
Finally, what about the prediction markets? Intrade have a US recession 08 contract, where you can bet on the likelihood that there are "two successive quarters of negative real GDP growth" this year. The contracts were hovering around the 50% mark until last week. Since then they have shot up to the 60-65% mark (click on chart). Given my assessment, I should probably short the contract.