Predicting Recessions: Identifying Reliable Sources

Includes: IYY, SPY
by: Jeff Miller

Predicting Recessions

We do not have a model for predicting a recession, nor do we claim any expertise at such predictions. Our strength lies in distinguishing the real experts from the pretenders. This is more difficult than it might seem, since recessions are an unlikely event, a subject we tried to explain. Anyone trying to predict unlikely events will have many errors. This leads the average observer to believe that there is no expertise involved.

That conclusion is a serious mistake.

Is Everyone an Expert?

CNBC has been posing the recession question to everyone. Is this just a matter of opinion? Is everyone's opinion equal? The way the question is posed carries this implication. It is as if they were asking about American Idol or Dancing with the Stars or what football team will do well this year.

We have noticed a clear trend. The less the responder knows about economics, the more likely the prediction of a recession. Those identified as "Chief Market Strategist" for some company are more likely to be worried and bearish. While economic opinion varies, the economists are more likely to see underlying strength in the economy and view the housing problem as a distribution of cases rather than a stereotype.

Econocator has two good articles (here and here) showing forecasts by economists. One should keep in mind that the average long-term recession expectation is about 20%.

The opinions of CEO's responding to CNBC interviewers and individuals answering polls is important, but not because they are expert forecasters. Their opinions are important because of confidence and investment plans. If everyone's investment and spending plans are governed by media hype on recession, there might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. CNBC today even held discussions speculating on the sad possibility that some hope for this. Watching CEO opinion and consumer confidence is important for this reason.

Bespoke Investment Group provides interesting data from Intrade on prediction market forecasts for a recession. Please note that the market sees a 7% chance of recession this year, defined as two quarter of negative growth. That means that Q307 must turn out to be negative!

The Range of Forecasters

The Bears. At one extreme there are the usual suspects: the long-time bearish market pundits. They cite the "spent-up" consumer, powerful symbolism like the "subslime contagion," and create long causal chains where one domino falls after another. The conclusion, in their view, is inevitable and unavoidable because they, knowing more than the Fed or anyone else, have foreseen this problem. They see the government generally and the Fed in particular as dumber and less informed than they are, concluding that the Fed is "behind the curve."

This viewpoint is argued effectively, vigorously, and repeatedly, getting massive exposure in the media and on the Internet. It has probably had a major effect.

The Error. The problem with these arguments is the arrogance of the approach. It is exactly the opposite of what we recommend. Instead of looking to find expertise, these pundits purport to see something that no one else knows.

In fact, every economist has been well aware of housing problems for years. The question -- still quite open for resolution -- is the extent of the effect on the economy--not stocks or credit markets--but the ultimate economic effect. These pundits argue that economists "do not get it." In fact, professional economists see the same evidence, but reach a different conclusion. Economists have all reduced economic forecasts to reflect housing issues and have done so for years. It is a question of magnitude.

The difference is that those with economic training do not view demand as a single point, but rather as a distribution. They do not see homeowners or lenders or borrowers or workers or employers as a stereotype, but as a distribution of actors.

When a business folds, jobs are lost. The workers do not all move to rocking chairs on the front porch. They seek new employment. Entrepreneurs develop new opportunities. That is why 2.5 million jobs are lost and created in our economy each month. Non-experts have no sense of the dynamism of the economy or the labor market. Astute readers should look for this awareness, and note its absence.

The Real Experts

There are many good economists, but a few days ago on RealMoney we highlighted a CNBC inteview with someone whose organization has the best long-term record on forecasting the business cycle.

Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute was just interviewed on CNBC. His occasional updates are very important to those of us interested in economic analysis and forecasting. The ECRI has a great record that avoids "false positive" recession signals. They use proprietary leading indicators, but occasionally provide more insight into what they are seeing. Gary D. Smith also provides periodic updates on their indicators in his excellent Long/Short Trader column on RealMoney Silver.

The ECRI is not speaking for a sell-side firm nor trading stocks, so their comments come without any apparent bias. They sell their research, and they must deliver a quality product. Today's message? In answer to a question about the dramatic cover of Fortune, Achuthan made several interesting comments.

...the bottom line is that ...dramatic predictions get attention....(NYSE:A)lmost every year there is a recession call. In 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 and now in 2007, we are seeing various scenarios. You know some speculation and you kind of link it together. There is a housing crash therefore there must be a recession. Or there is a credit market shock and there must be a recession. That's not how recessions are made. ...(NYSE:S)hocks can help trigger a recession but the economy needs to be vulnerable in the first place."

Explaining that the ECRI was always looking for vulnerability, Achuthan continued, "The events we have seen over the last few weeks and months have taken the shine off of growth out a few quarters, and we'll get some slowing.

He stated flatly that we would not get a recession this year. He also pointed out that economic indicators could only look forward a few quarters. The longest leading indicators show slowing growth, but he called it "way premature" to forecast a recession.

Asked about a leading indicator he pointed to the spread between AAA corporates and BAA corporates. Since he thought that viewers might not believe it, he picked one that you can look up yourself. "It is a good leading indicator....The spread was about 100 bp's before the credit drama started and now it is actually smaller...(NYSE:I)t is a fifteen-month low in the spread."

I like the ECRI's rigorous analysis. It includes long historical studies to discover the best indicators. It emphasizes quantification. It shows a clear concept of what leads to recession. Readers would benefit from looking up the video up on the CNBC site and taking a few minutes to watch for yourself.


The astute investor must learn to be a wise consumer of information. We tried to highlight this dilemma in an article describing a typical CNBC interview. The comments from our readers were excellent, suggesting many good points and providing new data. After reading the comments, it is quite clear that an articulate advocate, using a stereotype, has a persuasive effect on the intelligent and informed viewer. That is the danger. The anecdotal example, effectively used, has real power--a power to mislead.

Readers should note that this is an article about education and understanding. It is not an immediate bullish market call. While we are bullish from a longer-term perspective, we are quite cautious about current conditions. It is a question of one's time frame. In particular, we are not convinced that the Fed shares the dominant market perspective on interest rate policy. Our technical models remain neutral/negative on the overall market, while still finding many attractive specific sectors.

The single most important takeaway: Beware of those claiming to know more about everything, seeing what no one else sees. A stronger approach is to identify and blend knowledge from true experts.