By John Mauldin
July 19, 2019
I’m often asked if recession is coming, and for quite different reasons. Some people worry about their investments. Others are worried about their employment or their kids. Political types wonder if and how recession could affect the next election.
To all those people, for quite some time now, my answer has been: “Yes, but not just yet.” That’s still what I think today, but more of the early warning signals I have used in the past are beginning to flash again.
Looking at the data, I see some good news but also some leading indicators weakening. I see smart people like Dave Rosenberg argue we may already be in recession today. And I see Wall Street not really caring either way, so long as it gets enough rate cuts to prop up asset prices. None of that is comforting.
Today we’ll look around and see what is happening. Because I try to be aware of my own biases, we’ll consider some more optimistic views, too. They may not be convincing, but it’s important to confront them.
As you’ll see, the storm clouds are gathering. Someone is likely to get hit. It might be you.
Let’s begin by reviewing where we are. I think we all agree this recovery cycle has been both longer and weaker than in the past. Any growth is good, of course, and certainly better than the alternative. But the last decade wasn’t a “boom” except in stock and real estate prices.
(Quickly, let’s put to rest the myth that the longer a recovery goes, the greater the likelihood of a recession. That’s a tautology. Recoveries don’t stop because of length. Back to the main point…)
I like this Lance Roberts chart because it shows long-term (5-year) rates of change, over a long period (since 1973) in three key indicators: Productivity, wage growth, and GDP growth. You can see all three are now tepid at best compared to their historical averages.
These measures have been generally declining since the early 2000s, suggesting that whatever caused our current problems preceded the financial crisis. But we don’t need to know the cause in order to see the effects which, while not catastrophic (at least yet), are worrisome. And, as Lance points out, a decade of bailouts and dovish monetary policy didn’t revive previous trends.
The growth deceleration is also visible if we zoom into the recent past, via the Goldman Sachs Current Activity Indicator. It peaked in early 2018 (not coincidentally, at least in my opinion, about the time Trump started imposing tariffs on China) and slid further this year. Much of it is due to a manufacturing slowdown, but the consumer and housing segments contributed as well.
Again, this doesn’t say recession is imminent. The US economy is still growing by most measures. But the growth is slowing and, unless something restores it, will eventually become a contraction.
My friend Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) makes the extraordinarily valid point: Recessions don’t happen from solid growth cycles. Economies generally move into what he calls a “vulnerable stage” before something pushes them into recession. We all pretty much agree that the US economy, not to mention the global economy, is in a vulnerable stage. It won’t take much of a shock to push it into recession.
That’s bad news for many reasons, but one is that we have a lot of catching-up to do. My friend Philippa Dunne recently highlighted some IMF research on lingering damage from the financial crisis. Per capita real GDP since 1970 is now running about $10,000 per person below where the pre-crisis trend would now have it. Philippa calculated that at current rates, the economy won’t be where it “should” be until the year 2048.
A recession will push us even further below that 1970–2007 trend line. And all the zero interest rate policies (ZIRP) and quantitative easing in the world will not get us back on trend, just as it did not after 2008. No matter how fast we try to run, it will get even harder to catch up with that trendline.
The inverted yield curve is one of the more reliable recession indicators, as I discussed at length last December in The Misunderstood Flattening Yield Curve. At that point, we had not yet seen a full inversion. Now we have, and it appears in hindsight perhaps the curve was “inverted” back then, and we just didn’t know it.
John here again. In other words, when you start matters, and now is not a good time. You want to buy on weakness, not strength. The weakness will come, but this isn’t it.
There is a counterargument, though. Maybe all this history doesn’t matter when we have central banks doing absurd things like negative interest rates. I see real risk that the Fed will go to NIRP before all this ends. Imagine what that will do to the trillions presently stashed in bonds. Will people (not to mention pension funds) happily pay for the privilege of being owed money? If not, where will they put their cash?
The answer, for many, may be in stocks. The resulting money flow could keep equity prices high despite negative fundamentals. I’m not predicting that outcome, but it’s possible.
We are in such bizarre times, all bets are off. It is certainly not the time for “buy and hold” unless your goal is to lose everything. If not, then you need an active, flexible, defensive investment strategy now more than ever.
One caveat: The last two times (2000 and 2006) the Fed cycle was where it is today, stocks actually rose for about six months. In 2006, I painfully remember being on the Larry Kudlow show with Nouriel Roubini where we were both talking about bear markets. Larry and John Rutherford were beating us up, telling us the markets would rally. They were right. Equity indexes went up 20% more after that December 2006 television show, before falling 50% and then some. Which is one reason my own personal strategies are now more nuanced than simply “sell everything and go to cash.” There are ways to properly hedge and still participate in the markets. But that’s another letter…
I thought I was staying home, but Monday finds me flying to New York for two days for last minute meetings while Shane is in Mexico. Then early August sees me in New York for a few days before the annual economic fishing event, Camp Kotok. Then maybe another day in New York before I meet Shane in Montana. Palo Alto is calling, too. So much for the light travel schedule.
Puerto Rico is now home for Shane and I. You may have seen news of large protests in Old San Juan. Everyone pretty much knew the government was corrupt, but recently revealed text messages exposed some disturbing details. The fact that the protests are nearly entirely peaceful (from what I can see) is amazing. The people are right to be outraged.
I have grown to love this island and the people. These are some of the happiest and most welcoming people of the 65 countries that I have visited in my life. A little transparency in their government would go a long way to solving the ills that plague them.
And with that, I will hit the send button. You have a great week and find some friends and family to be with. I’m looking forward to meeting a few friends in New York myself…
Your on recession watch analyst,
IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE INFORMATION
Investing involves risk. Past performance does not guarantee or indicate future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk. Therefore, it should not be assumed that future performance of any specific investment or investment strategy (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended and/or undertaken by CMG Capital Management Group, Inc. or any of its related entities (collectively “CMG”) will be profitable, equal any historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. No portion of the content should be construed as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. References to specific securities, investment programs or funds are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase or sell such securities.
Certain portions of the content may contain a discussion of, and/or provide access to, opinions and/or recommendations of CMG (and those of other investment and non-investment professionals) as of a specific prior date. Due to various factors, including changing market conditions, such discussion may no longer be reflective of current recommendations or opinions. Derivatives and options strategies are not suitable for every investor, may involve a high degree of risk, and may be appropriate investments only for sophisticated investors who are capable of understanding and assuming the risks involved. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained herein serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from CMG or the professional advisors of your choosing. To the extent that a reader has any questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed above to his/her individual situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with the professional advisors of his/her choosing. CMG is neither a law firm nor a certified public accounting firm and no portion of the newsletter content should be construed as legal or accounting advice.
This presentation does not discuss, directly or indirectly, the amount of the profits or losses, realized or unrealized, by any CMG client from any specific funds or securities. Please note: In the event that CMG references performance results for an actual CMG portfolio, the results are reported net of advisory fees and inclusive of dividends. The performance referenced is that as determined and/or provided directly by the referenced funds and/or publishers, have not been independently verified, and do not reflect the performance of any specific CMG client. CMG clients may have experienced materially different performance based upon various factors during the corresponding time periods. See links provided citing limitations of hypothetical back-tested information. Past performance cannot predict or guarantee future performance. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Please talk to your advisor.
Certain information herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable, but we do not guarantee or warrant its completeness or accuracy. This document is a general communication and is provided for informational and/or educational purposes only. None of the content should be viewed as a suggestion that you take or refrain from taking any action nor as a recommendation for any specific investment product, strategy, or other such purpose.
In the event that there has been a change in an individual’s investment objective or financial situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with his/her investment professional.
Written Disclosure Statement. CMG is an SEC-registered investment adviser located in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. John Mauldin serves as Chief Economist and Co-Portfolio Manager of the CMG Mauldin Smart Core Strategy. Please note: The above views are those of Mr. Mauldin, and do not necessarily reflect those of CMG, Stephen Blumenthal or any sub-advisor that CMG may engage to manage any CMG strategy. A copy of CMG’s current written disclosure statement discussing advisory services and fees is available upon request or via CMG’s internet web site at www.cmgwealth.com/disclosures. CMG is committed to protecting your personal information. Click here to review CMG’s privacy policies.