The Real Economy

About that recession: Resilience now, risks ahead

Jun 08, 2023

Key takeaways

The “R” word that best describes the real economy is resilience, not recession.

Our preferred model implies a shallow recession occurring early next year.

Behind this resilience are a robust labor market and $500 billion in excess savings. 

Economics The Real Economy

We have made the case for some time that the “R” word that best describes the American real economy is resilience, not recession.

Despite elevated inflation and interest rates, as well as tightening financial conditions and softening demand for loans, the economy has chugged along, thanks in no small part to strong consumer spending.

Now, with an unemployment rate hitting an all-time low of 3.4% in April, it’s hard to imagine that the National Bureau of Economic Research will declare a recession anytime this year—unless, of course, events dictate otherwise.

In fact, our preferred recession model now implies a shallow recession occurring early next year. We think this is a function of that robust labor market and roughly $500 billion in excess savings sitting on household balance sheets, which, according to the San Francisco Federal Reserve, should support spending at solid levels through the end of the year.

We estimate a 75% probability of an economic downturn over the next 12 months. While that is significant, it also implies a 25% chance of a soft landing for the economy.

And while a bevy of yield-curve models as well as our preferred metric are pointing to a downturn, right now the unstoppable American labor market and the cash on hand inside household pocketbooks are preventing that from happening. 

Cleveland Fed model of yield curve spreads and real GDP growth

Risks to the outlook

The two economic ecosystems most sensitive to interest rates are real estate and manufacturing.

In real estate, rising mortgage rates have dampened housing starts and intensified an affordability issue for many first-time buyers. That is the one area of the economy that contracted last year and is just starting to recover.

Manufacturing, by contrast, has slowed but not yet declined into recession. While manufacturing sentiment is aligned with contraction, the hard data on industrial production implies otherwise. And with orders at Boeing experiencing a solid increase and government defense spending rising, there is a fair chance that a manufacturing recession can be avoided.

There have been midcycle manufacturing downturns in previous periods—including the global manufacturing recession resulting from the 2018­−20 U.S. trade war—that did not lead to a general economic recession.

While manufacturing is an important driver of economic growth, it is not the sole determinant of the business cycle. 

In real estate, rising mortgage rates have dampened housing starts and intensified an affordability issue for many first-time buyers.

When do we expect a recession?

The Treasury yield curve continues to signal a recession, the result of the Fed’s program to reintroduce risk into the financial markets.

A yield-curve model by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is estimating a 68% probability of a recession in 12 months. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland model is pointing to a deceleration in gross domestic product growth in the second half of this year and a 75% probability of a recession in 12 months.

Monetary policy is transmitted to the economy via financial conditions with a lag of nine to 12 months. Increases in the Fed’s overnight policy rate lead to expectations of an economic slowdown, which leads to additional risk priced into securities, a higher cost of credit and the tightening of financial conditions seen over the past year. The reluctance to borrow or lend leads to slower growth.

Because short-term interest rates are directly affected by Fed policy, while long-term rates are more affected by expectations around economic fundamentals, the difference between 10-year Treasury bond yields and three-month Treasury bill rates has proved to be a robust predictor of recessions.

The shape of the yield curve first became a concern last year. The yield curve was flattening as the Fed rapidly pushed short-term rates higher, while increases in long-term interest rates were moderated by concerns over economic growth. By the end of the year, short-term rates were higher than long-term bond yields, an abnormal condition.

This inversion has occurred before each of the recessions in the postwar era. As of May 12, three-month T-bill rates were priced at 5.20% while 10-year bonds were yielding 3.45%. The current 175 basis-point difference (on an equivalent basis) screams a recession in the making. 

Yield curve inversions before recessions*

According to the yield-curve model reported by the New York Fed, the narrowing yield-curve spreads of the past year implied only a 4% probability of a recession in April 2023. That probability has now increased to 68% in April 2024, in line with the severity of the inversion.

The model at the Cleveland Fed shows the probability of a recession in one year increased from 4% in April 2023 to 75% in April 2024, with the downturn starting in the fourth quarter.

While recessionary risks are rising, it appears that firms continue to hire, households continue to spend, and the economy continues to grow. Until hiring rolls over and higher-end consumers—the 40% of households responsible for 60% of spending—pull back, the economy will continue to muddle through even as firms reduce fixed business investment. 

NY Fed model of the probability of a recession in 12 months

Is the economy already in a recession?

The quick answer is no. Not when the unemployment rate is 3.4%.

An alternative recession model that we closely follow, the Chauvet-Piger recession probability model based on economic variables, identifies when the economy is in recession. As of March, the model on the St. Louis Fed economic data base estimated a less than 1% probability that the economy was in recession.

The factors that underscore this recession model show why the economy has not yet declined into recession and may escape unscathed.

The Chauvet-Piger model uses four coincident monthly variables to identify recessions:

  • Nonfarm payroll employment
  • The index of industrial production
  • Real manufacturing and trade sales
  • Real personal income excluding transfer payments

Identifying when the U.S. economy is in recession*

Job creation

The U.S. economy added 253,000 jobs in April, above the 200,000 average monthly increases during the recovery following the financial crisis. This suggests a resilient economy still capable of expanding after a series of serious blows.

Job creation during economic recoveries*

Industrial production index

The industrial production index appears to have formed a local peak. Two similar peaks occurred in the prior business cycle, caused by the commodity price collapse of 2014−15 and the 2018−20 trade war.

Whether this peak turns out to be a bump in the road or the precursor of a slide into recession is still to be determined. The industrial production index for April released by the Federal Reserve rose by 0.5%, suggesting that the economy still has room to run.

Industrial production index and business cycle turning points

Real manufacturing and trade sales

Real (inflation-adjusted) manufacturing and trade sales would be expected to follow the business cycle and inflation. Sales would increase as the economy regains its feet after a recession and then plateau if inflation were to increase. Real sales plummet as the economy drops off into recession.

In this latest cycle, and after quickly recovering from the health crisis, real sales are moving sideways, buffeted by inflation pressures, supply chain adjustments and shifts in demand.

Real manufacturing and trade sales in the runup to recessions

Real personal income

Real (inflation-adjusted) personal income continues to grow, but at a slower pace than in earlier business cycles. In the three years since the start of the health crisis in 2020, real personal income has grown at an average rate of 2.3% per year. This comes at the expense of high inflation and despite the rapid increase in income among low-wage workers.

Real personal income excluding government transfers during economic recoveries

As we show, the yearly growth of real personal income has just reached the bottom of the 2% to 4% range that generally held, outside of the extremes, during the 2013−20 business cycle. That speaks to the Fed’s steadfast response to the impact of inflation on households and the need to cool an overheated economy.

Real personal income growth during economic recoveries

The takeaway

An unemployment rate at 3.4% should be enough to dispel any notion of an economy already in recession.

Instead, if the economy does slide into recession, that downturn may occur sometime between the second half of this year and early next year, with the severity limited by the robustness of the labor market and what we expect to be further moderation in inflation.

On the upside, economy is still capable of generating 225,000 jobs each month, and real personal income is increasing as inflation recedes.

That implies more life in the recovery and a soft landing for the economy after a year of the Fed stepping on the brakes.

But that optimism is contingent on the banking system surviving its mismanagement of risk and the bursting of the zero-interest-rate lending bubble.

RSM contributors

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