What does it take to identify an impending recession? Obviously, this is an extremely complex question. However, there are at least 10 factors that have had a strong historical track-record of identifying recessions, and below we outline ten metrics to add to your watch-list:
- Household spending – The amount of money households spend on everyday goods and services is the number one determinant of economic growth. It represents more than half of GDP at 55.7% and is thus a directly attributable indicator and of significant importance to any GDP insight. Household spending changes tend to change instantaneously with the rate of economic growth, however given that consumer confidence tends to go in cycles it is still a useful tool to foresee future recessionary risks.
- Business investment – Technically called ‘private fixed capital formation’, business investment is a direct line in the GDP calculation and thus has a direct effect on recessionary conditions. Business investment accounts for 20% of GDP so it’s thus seen to be a very important component and indicator for future recessions. Apart from its direct impact, it is also a clear signal of business confidence which has flow on effects for future GDP results.
- Dwelling formation – Dwelling formation refers to the activities involved in new and used private houses, including alterations and renovations. It now accounts for 5.3% of the entire economy and is thus seen to be strongly correlated with the overall economic growth rate. Similar to household spending, it is seen to be an indicator of consumer confidence and thus has the ability to act as a leading indicator for economic growth. An encouraging signal involves a positive and/or growing rate.
- Corporate earnings – Corporate earnings refer to the aggregate profitability of businesses and is a data series produced to gauge the health of the corporate sub-set of the economy. If the average company is highly profitable, it makes sense that the overall economy will be expanding. With this logic, we can see a strong correlation between the current status of corporations and the future growth rate of the country. The risk of recession is seen to increase when corporate profitability is deteriorating on average.
- Yield curve – The yield curve simply refers to the difference in ‘borrowing rates’ on 10 year bonds versus 5 year bonds. If the 10-year bond pays a higher rate than the 5-year bond, this is seen to be normal, however when the opposite occurs it is seen to be the markets way of pricing for a recession. Across the globe, there has been a very strong long-term connection between the shape of the yield curve and the risk of recession. The link in Australia has been relatively weak but remains an insightful measure of risk.
- Historical GDP growth – It makes intuitive sense that the risk of recession is higher if the economic growth rate is off a lower base. For example, it would seem highly unlikely for a recession to occur from a base of 5% or more, but would be far more plausible to slide into recession from a growth rate of 2% or less. This momentum effect is a powerful force behind economic growth, and for this reason the historical GDP growth rate can be an insightful measure for future recessionary risks.
- Worker productivity – The driving force behind an economy is the workforce. The more people work, or the more efficient they become, the stronger the economy tends to be. There are many useful measures to track workplace productivity, however the most useful measure tends to be the total number of hours worked as this factors in population growth and demographic changes. A low and/or falling work ethic increases the risk of recession, whilst a growing rate is a positive sign for the future economy.
- Retail sales – Retail sales is a vital component of household spending and is a very useful measure of the future direction of the economy. If consumers aren’t shopping and money isn’t passing through people’s hands, the economy is unlikely to be growing with conviction.
If retail sales are falling, there is a reasonably high likelihood that a recession could be impending as consumer confidence becomes dented. History has shown that this connection with GDP is strong.
- Housing starts – The process to build a house begins with a housing approval or ‘housing start’. This commitment is a clear sign of confidence that the economy will hold up, and marks the commencement of a long list of transactions that eventually push the economy forward. The new housing starts data is subject to volatility, however, if more people are committing to build a new home, more people are signalling their confidence in the economy. This reduces the risk of a future recession.
- Employment growth – Similar to the workforce productivity indicator, the employment rate is of vital importance for the future prospects of the economy. The total employment growth figure is a more useful measure than the unemployment rate because it accounts for new additions to the workforce. While the employment growth figure tends to have a strong instantaneous correlation with GDP, the indicator has also proven to be an effective measure for future recessionary risks.
Of course, this list is not conclusive and there are an array of other important economic fundamentals that will impact the likelihood of a recession. In reality, there is no such thing as a perfect model, simply because the economy is so dynamic.
Creating a view from the data
Despite the limitations, an individual that wants any form of success should be trying to formulate a view based on the “known-known’s” while acknowledging the inability to predict the future with any precision. On this basis, the Investing Times opens up this research to help its readers, and produces a global recession risk report that is freely available to the public via the link below. This is a value-add service at no cost that covers at least five of the major global economies.
To give readers an idea of what to expect, the chart below is a historical view of the “recession trackers” ability in Australia, with a strong connection between the leading indicators and the future GDP growth rate.