When does a recession become a depression?

When does a recession become a depression?

Macro Letter – No 131 – 21-08-2020

When does a recession become a depression?

  • Defining a depression as opposed to a recession is open to wide interpretation
  • Recessions are a natural part of the credit cycle
  • Depressions are destroyers of a nation’s wealth
  • Fiscal policy can help ease the pain of ‘creative destruction’ but long-term planning is key

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

When your neighbour loses their job, it’s a recession.

When you lose your job, that’s a depression!

Harry S. Truman (33rd President of the Unites States)

The common knowledge definition above is grim and highly specific, but its banality serves to highlight the fact that the recession/depression question is not that simple to answer. Back in 2007 The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – What is the difference between a recession and a depression? – attempted to reach a conclusion. They embraced the NBER definition of a recession: –

A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion. Expansion is the normal state of the economy; most recessions are brief and they have been rare in recent decades.

And turned to Gregory Mankiw to distinguish between the two states of economic contraction: –

There are repeated periods during which real GDP falls, the most dramatic instance being the early 1930s. Such periods are called recessions if they are mild and depressions if they are more severe.

Despite the Federal Reserve’s valiant efforts, the simpler and more commonly accepted definition of a recession is a consecutive two quarters of decline in GDP. When it comes to depressions, however, there is little consensus; the two most common descriptions are: –

  • A decline in GDP of more than 20%
  • A period of more than two years of declining GDP

Whilst the two definitions are not mutually exclusive, they are broadly different. I believe the difference between a recession and a depression is more nuanced. A recession is a natural part of the business (or perhaps we should say credit) cycle, a depression, by contrast, involves the physical destruction of the economy – businesses are irreparably broken, employment opportunities terminally destroyed, investment has to be totally written off.

An alternative approach is to examine previous great depressions. Alas, this method proves equally inconsistent, for example the Great Depression of the 1930’s is generally considered to have lasted from 1929 to 1941 and yet, as the chart below reveals, there were only two distinct periods of declining GDP growth between 1930 and 1933 and again between 1937 and 1938: –

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Notwithstanding my more prosaic definition above, I favour the two year plus definition over that of a sharp decline in GDP. A recession hurts some parts of an economy, a depression is more widespread.

Another factor often associated with recessions and depressions is a rise in the rate of unemployment. Historically, rising unemployment has preceded the onset of recessions and only once recessions have become protracted have they been dubbed depressions.

A further differentiator relates to the absolute level of inflation. In general, as inflation rises, central banks respond by raising short-term interest rates. This helps to cool overheating economies, however, if they tighten too aggressively they may prompt a recession as the credit cycle is forced into a sharp contraction. By contrast a depression is often accompanied by an absolute fall in the price level, caused by an excessive overhang of domestic or corporate debt.

As an investor, why does a depression definition matter? Because financial markets are forward looking. If investors believe the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will be ‘V’ Shaped, then, even a 20% decline in GDP, together with zero interest rates, price support for government bonds and a fiscal expansion on a scale not witnessed since the ‘New Deal’ of FDR, will rapidly translate inot a sharply rising stock market. If, by contrast, it becomes clear that a tsunami of creative destruction is sweeping away entire industries, then even the most lavish of New New Deals may be insufficient to hold back the tide of stock liquidation as market participates rush to the safety of cash.

So far the official policy response has been sufficient to convince investors that a depression will be avoided. Scratch the surface of the S&P 500, however, and a rather different picture appears. The chart below shows market performance up to the end of May. The same five technology stocks have continued to drive S&P 500 index performance since then: –

Source: FactSet, Goldman Sachs

Technology has been the top performing sector. One argument for such elevated valuations rests on the premise that the pandemic has accelerated a wide range of technology trends bringing with it the potential for much swifter profits. In finance parlance, the net present value of future technology cash-flows has been brought forward by, some analysts suggest, several years. No wonder, they argue, that these stocks have broken to new all-time highs: and will continue, higher.

Since May, the broader stock market has hung of tech coattails (at the time of writing – 19-8-2020 -the MSCI World Index is up 1.73% YTD). For the present, hope triumphs over fear, yet vaccines remain many months from being widely available, meanwhile, for the Northern hemisphere, autumn – and fears of a second wave of infections – draws imminently near.

For emerging markets the situation is worse still. As Carmen and Vincent Reinhart, writing in Foreign Affairs – The Pandemic Depression– put it: –

Although dubbed a “global financial crisis,” the downturn that began in 2008 was largely a banking crisis in 11 advanced economies. Supported by double-digit growth in China, high commodity prices, and lean balance sheets, emerging markets proved quite resilient to the turmoil of the last global crisis. The current economic slowdown is different. The shared nature of this shock—the novel coronavirus does not respect national borders—has put a larger proportion of the global community in recession than at any other time since the Great Depression. As a result, the recovery will not be as robust or rapid as the downturn. And ultimately, the fiscal and monetary policies used to combat the contraction will mitigate, rather than eliminate, the economic losses, leaving an extended stretch of time before the global economy claws back to where it was at the start of 2020.

The World Bank estimates globally more than 60mln people will be pushed into severe poverty. Meanwhile, in developed countries, bankruptcies, which have been postponed by government intervention, may meet their personal epiphanies as fiscal largesse is suddenly withdrawn. Unless the lockdown restrictions are lifted and people feel safe, both medically and financially, to venture out and spend, the destruction of large swathes of developed market economies has simply been deferred.

By next month we will have experienced two quarters of diminished growth – this is a deep recession already. Swathes of the economy have been permanently altered, making a depression highly likely. Millions of workers have been displaced, it will take more than a handful of months for them to be retrained. Without the consumption demand from these erstwhile workers, it will be difficult for new and existing companies to create the growth they need to hire new employees.

Fiscal spending will need to be undertaken on a much larger scale, and for much longer, than has been envisaged so far. In all the major financial crises since 1850, the average time for per capita GDP to recover to the pre-crisis level was eight years. To date it is estimated that the G20 response to the pandemic has amounted to $11trln. Most of these measures have been ‘temporary’ or ‘short-term.’ It is quickly becoming clear, the disruption to employment, business and sectors of the economy will be protracted and, in many cases, permanent, The IMF estimate that for advanced economies the deficit-to-GDP ratio will rise from 3.3% in 2019 to 16.6% this year. For emerging economies, where the capacity for fiscal expansion is more limited, the ratio is expected to swell from 4.9% last year to 10.6% in 2020. Whilst for advanced economies the cost of borrowing has remained low in emerging markets financing costs have risen. The burden of fiscal stimulus will inevitably fall most heavily upon the treasuries of the advanced economies.

Conclusion

As Sir Winston Churchill once said: –

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

In the aging societies of the West (and elsewhere) the individual need for income remains key. Developed nation governments are fortunate in their ability to borrow more cheaply than at any time in economic history. Whilst it is at odds with my Austrian, free-market instincts, I am forced to admit that fiscal policy is the least panful weapon available to combat the economic catharsis created by the pandemic. Economically, there will be a heavy price to pay, but the alternative is a dangerous cocktail of political fragmentation and polarisation.

For investors the task of securing steady real income remains challenging. Private debt and asset backed lending, which offers high yield, comes with both default and liquidity risk. The chart below looks at some of the public market options, financial repression is rife across the credit spectrum: –

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

High income stocks might be an alternative but they offer no guarantee, no matter how ‘blue-chip’ the name. An addition to the acceleration in technology trends, growth stocks in general are benefitting from the exceptionally low interest environment, but there will be a greater number of failures because the cost of speculative finance is also at an historical low. Active management has been unfashionable for at least a decade but looking ahead preservation of capital is going to be more important than capturing out-sized gains.

I wrote about value investing back in June in – A Brave New World for Value Investing – concluding that:

Stock and corporate bond markets have regained much of their composure since late March. Central banks and governments have acted to ameliorate the effects of the global economic slowdown. As the dust begins to settle, the financial markets will adjust to a new environment, one in which value-based stock and bond market analysis will provide an essential aid to navigation.

The geopolitics of trade policy, already a source of tension before the pandemic struck, has been turbo-charged by the simultaneous supply and demand shocks and their impact on global supply chains. Supply chains will shorten and diversify. Robustness rather than efficiency will be the watch-word in the months and years ahead. This sea-change in the functioning of the world economy will not be without cost. It will appear in increased prices or reduced corporate profits. Value-based investment analysis will be the best guide in this brave new world.

I would add an additional strategy to the investment armoury, a momentum overlay. With fiscal and monetary policy continuing to support economies as they transition to the new world order, capital flows will be a powerful arbiter of investment return. Technology stocks may look expensive by most normal metrics but the trend is patently clear. Do not emulate Cnut The Great, but do as Brutus advises in the opening quote, after all, financial market liquidity flows like tide.

Is the US exporting a recession?

Is the US exporting a recession?

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018

Is the US exporting a recession?

  • The Federal Reserve continue to raise rates as S&P earnings beat estimates
  • The ECB and BoJ maintain QE
  • Globally, corporations rely on US$ financing, nonetheless
  • Signs of a slowdown in growth are clearer outside the US

After last week’s ECB meeting, Mario Draghi gave the usual press conference. He confirmed the continuance of stimulus and mentioned the moderation in the rate of growth and below-target inflation. He also referred to the steady expansion in money supply. When it came to the Q&A he revealed rather more:-

It’s quite clear that since our last meeting, broadly all countries experienced, to different extents of course, some moderation in growth or some loss of momentum. When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries.

It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators. Sharp declines were experienced by PMI, almost all sectors, in retail, sales, manufacturing, services, in construction. Then we had declines in industrial production, in capital goods production. The PMI in exports orders also declined. Also we had declines in national business and confidence indicators.

I quote this passage out of context because the entire answer was more nuanced. My reason? To highlight the difference between the situation in the EU and the US. In Europe, money supply (M3) is growing at 4.3% yet inflation (HICP) is a mere 1.3%. Meanwhile in the US, inflation (CPI) is running at 2.4% and money supply (M2) is hovering a fraction above 2%. Here is a chart of Eurozone M3 since 1999:-

EU M3 Money Supply

Source: Eurostat

The recent weakening of momentum is a concern, but the absolute level is consistent with a continued expansion.

Looked at over a rather longer time horizon, here is a chart of US M2 since 1900:-

M2 since 1900 - Hoisington

Source: Hoisington Asset Management, Federal Reserve

The letters A, B, C, D denote the only occasions, during the last 118 years, when a decline in the expansion (or, during the 1930’s, contraction) of M2 did not lead to a recession. 17 out of 21 is a quite compelling record.

Another concern for markets is the flatness of the US yield curve. Here is the 2yr – 10yr yield differential since 1990:-

US 2yr - 10yr Factset Mauldin

Source: Factset, Mauldin Economics

More importantly, for international borrowers, the 6-month LIBOR rate has risen by more than 60 basis points since the start of the year (from 1.8% to 2.5%) whilst 30yr Swap rates have increased by only 40 basis points (2.6% to 3%). The 10yr – 30yr Swap curve is now practically flat.

Also worthy of comment, as US Treasury yields have risen, the relationship between Bonds and Swaps has begun to normalise – 30yr T-Bond yields are only 40 basis points above their level of January and roughly at the same level as in the spring of last year. In April 2017 I wrote in Macro Letter – No 74 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?:-

Today the IRS market increasingly determines the cost of finance, during the next crisis IRS yields may rise or fall by substantially more than the same maturity of US T-bond, but that is because they are the most liquid instruments and are only indirectly supported by the Central Bank.

It looks like I may have to eat my words, here is the Bond vs Swap table revisited:-

Evolution_of_T-Bond_and_IRS_Spreads_-_investing_co_002

Source: Investing.com, Interestrateswaps.com, BBA

What is evident is that the Bond/Swap inversion in the longer maturities has closed substantially even as shorter maturity spreads have narrowed. Federal Reserve policy has been the dominate factor.

Why is it, however, that the effect of higher US rates is, seemingly, felt more poignantly in Europe than the US? Does this bring us back to protectionism? Perhaps, but in less contentious terms, the US has run a capital account surplus for many years. Outside the US investment is closely tied to LIBOR financing costs, these have remained higher, except in the longest maturities, and these rates have risen most precipitously this year. Looked at another way, the higher interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve, despite the continued largesse of other central banks, is exporting the next recession to the rest of the world.

I ended Macro Letter – No 74 back in April 2017 – saying:-

Meanwhile, although interest rates have risen from historic lows they remain far below their long run average. Pension funds and other long-term investors still require 7% or more in annualised returns in order to meet their liabilities. They are being forced to continuously increase their investment risk and many have chosen to use the swap market. The next crisis is likely to see an even more pronounced unravelling than in 2008/2009. The unravelling may not happen for some while but the stresses are likely to be focused on the IRS market.

One year on, cracks in the capital markets edifice are beginning to become more evident. GDP growth has started to rollover in the US, Eurozone and Japan. Yields are still relatively low but the absolute increase in rates for shorter maturities (e.g. the near doubling of US 2yr yields from 1.25% to 2.5% in a single year) is guaranteed to take its toll on corporate interest servicing costs. US capital markets are the envy of the world. They are deep and allow borrowers to finance far into the future. The rest of the world is forced to borrow at shorter tenors. A three basis point narrowing of 5yr spreads between Swaps and Bonds is hardly compensation for the near 1% increase in interest rates, or, put in starker terms, a 46% increase in absolute borrowing costs.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

How is the rise in borrowing costs impacting the US stock market? Volatility is back, but earnings are robust. Factset – S&P 500 Earnings Season Update: April 27, 2018 – described it thus:-

To date, 53% of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported actual results for Q1 2018. In terms of earnings, more companies are reporting actual EPS above estimates (79%) compared to the five-year average. If 79% is the final percentage for the quarter, it will mark the highest percentage of S&P 500 companies reporting actual EPS above estimates since FactSet began tracking this metric in Q3 2008. In aggregate, companies are reporting earnings that are 9.1% above the estimates, which is also above the five-year average. In terms of sales, more companies (74%) are reporting actual sales above estimates compared to the five-year average. In aggregate, companies are reporting sales that are 1.7% above estimates, which is also above the five-year average. If 1.7% is the final percentage for the quarter, it will mark the largest revenue surprise percentage since FactSet began tracking this metric in Q3 2008.

… The blended (combines actual results for companies that have reported and estimated results for companies that have yet to report), year-over-year earnings growth rate for the first quarter is 23.2% today, which is higher than the earnings growth rate of 18.5% last week. Positive earnings surprises reported by companies in multiple sectors (led by the Information Technology sector) were responsible for the increase in the earnings growth rate for the index during the past week. All 11 sectors are reporting year-over-year earnings growth. Nine sectors are reporting double-digit earnings growth, led by the Energy, Materials, Information Technology, and Financials sectors.

We are more than halfway through Q1 earnings (I’m writing this letter on Wednesday 2nd May). Results have generally been above forecast and now the Fed seems conscious that they must not be too hasty to reverse the effects of both zero rates and QE. Added to which, while US stocks have been languishing mid-range, European stocks have recently broken out of their recent ranges to the upside, despite discouraging economic data.

The US stock market looks less expensive than it did in January 2017, when I wrote Macro Letter – 68 – Equity valuation in a de-globalising world. Then I was looking for stock markets with a low correlation to the US: they were (and remain) hard to find.

Other indicators to watch which exert a strong influence on stocks include the US PMI Index – last at 54.8 up from 54.2 in March. Above 50 there is little cause for concern. For the Eurozone it is even higher at 55.2, whilst throughout G20 no economy is recording a PMI below 50.

The chart below shows the Citigroup Economic Surprises Index (blue) vs the S&P500 Forward P/E estimates (red):-

Citi Economic Surprises vs SandP - Yardeni 27-4-18

Source: Yardeni Research, S&P, Thompson Reuters, Citigroup

Economic surprises remain positive rather than negative for the US. In the Eurozone it is quite another matter:-

Citigroup Economic Surprises Index - Eurozone

Source: Bloomberg, Citigroup

A number of economic indicators are pointing to a slowdown, yet US stocks are beating estimates. To judge from price action, the market appears to be unimpressed by earnings. I am reminded of the old adage, ‘When all the buyers are in the market it’s time to sell.’ From a technical perspective it makes sense to be patient, but the market has failed to rise substantially on a positive slew of earnings news. This may be because there is a more important factor driving sentiment: the direction of US rates. It certainly appears to have engendered a revival of the US$. It rallied last month having been in a downtrend since January 2017 despite a steadily tightening Federal Reserve. For EURUSD the move from 1.10 to 1.25 appears to have taken its toll. On the basis of the CESI chart, above, if Wall Street sneezes, the Eurozone might catch pneumonia.