John Hussman: Recession Warning (Unthinkability is Not Evidence)
John Hussman of www.hussmanfunds.com puts out a Weekly Market Comment (which I highly encourage you to read every week). Per usual, this is another good article.
John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
June 28, 2010
Based on evidence that has always and only been observed during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions, the U.S. economy appears headed into a second leg of an unusually challenging downturn.
A few weeks ago, I noted that our recession warning composite was on the brink of a signal that has always and only occurred during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions, the last signal being the warning I reported in the November 12, 2007 weekly comment Expecting A Recession. While the set of criteria I noted then would still require a decline in the ISM Purchasing Managers Index to 54 or less to complete a recession warning, what prompts my immediate concern is that the growth rate of the ECRI Weekly Leading Index has now declined to -6.9%. The WLI growth rate has historically demonstrated a strong correlation with the ISM Purchasing Managers Index, with the correlation being highest at a lead time of 13 weeks.
Taking the growth rate of the WLI as a single indicator, the only instance when a level of -6.9% was not associated with an actual recession was a single observation in 1988. But as I've long noted, recession evidence is best taken as a syndrome of multiple conditions, including the behavior of the yield curve, credit spreads, stock prices, and employment growth. Given that the WLI growth rate leads the PMI by about 13 weeks, I substituted the WLI growth rate for the PMI criterion in condition 4 of our recession warning composite. As you can see, the results are nearly identical, and not surprisingly, are slightly more timely than using the PMI. The blue line indicates recession warning signals from the composite of indicators, while the red blocks indicate official U.S. recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The blue spike at the right of the graph indicates that the U.S. economy is most probably either in, or immediately entering a second phase of contraction. Of course, the evidence could be incorrect in this instance, but the broader economic context provides no strong basis for ignoring the present warning in the hope of a contrary outcome. Indeed, if anything, credit conditions suggest that we should allow for outcomes that are more challenging than we have typically observed in the post-war period.
Unthinkability is Not Evidence
One of the greatest risks to investors here is the temptation to form investment expectations based on the behavior of the U.S. stock market and economy over the past three or four decades. The credit strains and deleveraging risks we currently observe are, from that context, wildly "out of sample." To form valid expectations of how the economic and financial situation is likely to resolve, it's necessary to consider data sets that share similar characteristics. Fortunately, the U.S. has not observed a systemic banking crisis of the recent magnitude since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, that also means that we have to broaden our data set in ways that investors currently don't seem to be contemplating.