Leading Indicators Show Incoming Recession; Lagging Indicators Not So Much

Here I will draw on a recent article Leads And Lags: Timing A Recession by Seeking Alpha author Eric Basmajian. His overall points are (1) that some indicators are associated with leading segments of the economy (which have historically turned down well before the rest), while others are more lagging, and (2) the leading indicators are strongly flashing recession. Direct quotes from his article are in italics.

Leading Economy, Cyclical Economy & Total Economy

When economic data is released, the information should be contextualized based on where the data point falls in the economic cycle sequence.

We can separate the economy into three buckets: the Leading Economy, the Cyclical Economy, and the Total Economy.

The Leading Economy is defined by the Conference Board Leading Index, which is a basket of ten leading economic variables such as building permits, new orders, and stock prices.

The Leading Index has turned negative before every recession, without exception.

Conference Board, Census Bureau, BLS, BEA, Federal Reserve

The Cyclical Economy represents the construction and manufacturing sectors. The Cyclical Economy is the driving force behind recessions, always turning negative before the Total Economy, and never giving a false signal; when the Cyclical Economy turns negative, the Total Economy turns negative several months later.

Conference Board, Census Bureau, BLS, BEA, Federal Reserve

The Total Economy is defined by the “Big-4” Coincident Indicators of economic activity. Nonfarm payrolls, real personal income less transfer payments, real personal consumption, and industrial production are four major economic indicators that the NBER uses as the core of their recession dating procedure.

Conference Board, Census Bureau, BLS, BEA, Federal Reserve

A sustained contraction in the “Big-4” Coincident Indicators is the definition of a recession.

The Total Economy starts showing contracting growth rates about four months into the recession.

Could This Time Be Different?

If we do finally get a recession, it will be probably the most long-expected recession ever. Pundits have been warning for over a year that the Fed’s well-telegraphed program of rate hikes will crater the economy, as the only way to tame inflation.

According to Basmajian, When the Leading Economy and Cyclical Economy are both lower than -1%, a recession, as dated by the NBER, occurred an average of 5 months later, with a range of a 4-month lag to a 14-month lead.

His Leading indicator went negative about 11 months ago (June, 2022). However, it looks like the economy is still humming along and employment remains robust. His Cyclic Economy is on track to go negative right about now, but that has an unusually long lag between Leading and Cyclical:

The Cyclical Economy will likely turn negative with April data and potentially below -1% by May data should the current downward slope remain.

That would push the lag between the Leading Economy and the Cyclical Economy to 11 months, the longest on record.

And the lag before we finally get a bona fide recession in the Total Economy may keep dragging out longer yet. There is even a possible Soft Landing scenario where the rate hikes manage to cool the economy down without causing a severe recession at all.

It seems to me that we collectively are still spending down our excess pandemic benefits, and no recession will come till we finish running through those monies.

Aging Populations = Inevitable Slow GDP Growth?

Last month Eric Basmajian published “Why Demographics Matter More Than Anything (For The Long Term)” on the financial site Seeking Alpha. He predicts that that the developed world plus China face a future of low economic growth (regardless of policy machinations) due simply to demographics. His key points:

Demographics are the most important factor for long-term analysis.

The young and old age cohorts negatively impact economic growth.

The prime-age population (25-64) drives the bulk of economic activity.

The world’s major economies are suffering from lower population growth and an older population.

Over the long run, the world’s major economies will have worse economic growth, which will negatively impact pro-cyclical asset prices (like stocks).

I will paste in some of his supporting charts. First, the labor force is more or less proportional to the 25-64 age cohort (U.S. data shown) :

…and GDP growth trends with labor force growth:

Also, on the consumption side, that is highest with the 25-54 age group:

And so,

Younger people are a drag on economic growth and older people are a drag on economic growth… The prime-age population is the segment that drives economic activity, so if the share of population that is 25-54 is shrinking, which it is, then you’re going to have more people that are a negative force than a positive force:

Once the working-age population growth flips negative, an economy is doomed…. Working age population growth in Japan flipped negative in the 1990s, and they moved to negative interest rates, QE, and they have never been able to stop. The economy is too weak.

After 2009, the working-age population in Europe flipped negative, and they moved to negative rates and QE, and they haven’t been able to stop. Even now, as the US is raising rates, Europe is struggling to catch up and has already abandoned most of its tightening plans.

In 2015, China’s working-age population flipped negative, and they’ve had problems ever since. They devalued their currency in 2015 and tried one more time to inflate a property bubble, but it didn’t work, and now they’re having to manage the deflation of an asset bubble that the population cannot support.

The US is in better shape than everyone else, but we’re not looking at robust growth levels in this prime-age population.

In conclusion, “ The real growth rate in most developed nations is collapsing because of those two factors, worsening demographics, and increased debt burdens.    In the US, as a result of the demographic trends I just outlined plus a rising debt burden, real GDP per capita can barely sustain 1% increases over the long run compared to 2.5% in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.”

That is pretty much where Basmajian leaves it. No actionable advice (besides subscribing to his financial newsletter). What isn’t addressed is whether productivity (production per worker) can somehow be accelerated. Also, one of his charts (which I did not copy here) showed a big trend down in 25-64 age fraction in the US population in the 1950’s-1960’s (as hangover from the Depression?), and yet these were decades of strong GDP growth. So these demographic trends are not the whole story, but his analysis is sobering.