EC Where Is That Confounded Recession?

“Ah, excuse me. Oh, will ya excuse me. I’m just trying to find the recession. Has anybody seen the recession?”

Ask that question in a roomful of forecasters, and you’ll hear plenty of reasons why the next recession is dead ahead: the inverted yield curve, the tariff war, weak PMIs, the global manufacturing downturn.

Events might eventually prove those recession forecasts to be correct, although I would say not until mid-2020 at the earliest, and a recession at that time remains just a possibility. I say that because we haven’t yet seen enough cause for alarm in the three areas that most reliably predict recessions. Before every recession, we see at least one, usually two and often every one of the following three precursors:

  • Deterioration in the housing sector
  • Restrictive public policies
  • Significant damage to the real spending capacity of households, businesses or both

In other words, when trouble emerges across some combination of housing activity, public policies and real spending capacity, we’ll know to expect a recession. Trouble in one of those areas should put us on alert, whereas two or three would mean we should bank on it. So what’s missing from today’s popular recession narratives is adequate support from the “Big-3” precursors, and without that support, it’s probably too soon to bet on a recession. The U.S. economy always expands when the housing sector is stable, public policies are growth-supportive and real spending capacity is increasing. Simply put, no sign of the Big-3 means no recession.

But isn’t there a first time for everything? Can it really be so simple?

There is, and I don’t expect to convince anyone the economy is that simple without first providing some evidence, so I’ll continue. I’ll focus mostly on spending capacity, which is where I stray furthest from traditional, mainstream methods.

Why spending capacity?

Behavioral research, empirical data and casual observation all point towards households and businesses increasing their spending for as long as they have the capacity to do so. Changes in spending capacity predict changes in spending with remarkable accuracy, notwithstanding the Keynesian idea that spending follows the mysterious ebbs and flows of “animal spirits.” In fact, the spirits described by Keynesians might not be all that mysterious—they’re always present in some degree, they just happen to flow in proportion to spending capacity. They don’t disappear for no particular reason and then later reappear.

So I suggest closing your Keynesian textbook and looking instead to natural human behavior for clues about spending. Behavioral research tells us we’re naturally overconfident, believing our ventures will succeed with a certainty that defies the true probability of success. It also tells us we’re at least partially blind to certain obstacles to success, such as basic randomness. We’re naturally wired to have an illusion of control and an optimism bias alongside hindsight and confirmation biases, all of which encourage us to spend for as long as we have the capacity to do so.

But that’s not all. We’re also prone to a lack of self control that researchers have termed present bias and a tendency to spend like drunken sailors whenever in the company of other free-spending drunken sailors, thanks to our natural herding bias. I could go on, but you get the idea—once we consider human nature, it’s easier to appreciate why spending capacity is the economy’s driving force.

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Gary Anderson 10 months ago Contributor's comment

All you really need is bad collateral to be recessionary. But this article is a good study in banks expanding the money supply. It is not strictly fiat money, since fiat money has no collateral offset. Bank money is offset by the house as collateral.

Backyard Hiker 10 months ago Member's comment

Good point.