Recession or no recession?
Recently, the focus for investors has been all over the map:
- Oil prices
- Corporate earnings
- The global economy
- China’s economy
- China’s currency (the yuan)
- Anxieties about banks (especially in Europe)
- The Federal Reserve’s next move
- Global central banks that may be running out of ammunition to counter economic weakness
- Emerging market debt
- “Brexit,” -- the possibility Britain will exit the European Union this summer
- Political uncertainty in the U.S.
It’s not an all-inclusive list, but it adds up to a whole host of worries that investors have to grapple with in the short term.
Yet, U.S. stocks in February ended mixed as oil prices ticked higher and the economic data improved.
Notably, the more positive economic reports come at a time when the global outlook is tepid at best. But it highlights that the driver of U.S. economic activity isn’t coming from overseas. Instead, it is homegrown.
Table 1: Key index returns
Dow Jones Industrial Average
S&P 500 Index
Russell 2000 Index
MSCI World ex-USA**
MSCI Emerging Markets**
Source: Wall Street Journal, MSCI.com
MTD returns: January 29, 2016—February 29, 2016
2016 Returns – December 31, 2015–February 29, 2016
Let’s grow the list by one more item: U.S. recession worries
If you listen to the pundits of doom and gloom, we’re going to enter a recession this year that will take stocks to new lows.
First, let me state the obvious and then I’ll provide some examples in a moment. Economic forecasters do a pretty lousy job of calling turning points in an economic expansion.
Thinks of it this way: Pile a bunch of seasoned sport analysts into a room and ask them who’s going to come out on top of an important football or basketball game.
While they will offer a thoughtful analysis of each team’s strengths and weakness, and may even agree on many points, they will draw different conclusions as to the outcome. And their predictions for the final score--well, those will vary widely.
The same holds true for economists.
Take former Fed Chief Alan Greenspan, who headed up the Federal Reserve from 1987 – 2006. In March 2007, Greenspan said there was a “one-third probability” a recession would take hold in the U.S. that year (Washington Post).
By December, the U.S. would enter what would eventually be called the “Great Recession,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. So much for Dr. Greenspan’s complex forecasting models.
Still, any hunches he may have had at the time were more in line with what was eventually to pass. His successor, Dr. Ben Bernanke, had just told Congress the economy might strengthen.
Yes, the best and brightest are sometimes humbled by circumstances outside their control.
I believe the legendary Warren Buffett does a great job of summing it up.
“The cemetery for seers has a huge section set aside for macro (economic) forecasters. We have in fact made few macro (economic) forecasts at Berkshire, and we have seldom seen others make them with sustained success" (Bloomberg).
Why does all of this matter?
Let me repeat what I said a moment ago. There has been increased talk the U.S. economy may enter a recession later in the year. And recessions depress stocks.
About that drop in oil prices –global supply has outstripped global demand, which is still growing, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. In other words, it’s a problem of too much supply, not falling demand, which would be signaling a global recession.
Yet, in no way is the recession chatter the consensus view. But it does add some uncertainty to the mix, and it has pushed out forecasts for a recovery in corporate profits (Thomson Reuters).
For example, at the end of November, Q3 and Q4 earnings were forecast to be slightly negative before turning higher in the first quarter of 2016 (Thomson Reuters).
Enter another slide in oil prices and a sharp downward ratcheting of estimates for energy companies, and a return to growth in profits isn’t expected until Q3 of 2016.
If economic growth stalls later in the year, it would put added pressure on corporate profits and further delay any earnings recovery because historically corporate earnings have been a byproduct of what’s happening in the economy.
As I’ve already said, economic forecasting is an inexact science. But I’ll give you my opinion. We will descend into another recession. That’s right, I said it. It may be in 2016 or 2017 or 2018 or beyond. But an eventual recession (and subsequent recovery) in a free market economy is to be expected.
Given the volatility that strikes the market from time to time, I encourage investors to avoid watching the daily gyrations in stocks.
Again, Buffett offers another valuable piece of insight—
“Games are won by players who focus on the playing field—not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays” (Bloomberg).
That brings me to the next point. “Markets over a long period of time are going to go up,” Buffett said in a late February interview on CNBC. His advice is an excellent foundation for those with a long-term perspective. While none of us enjoy seeing the market decline, let’s remember that it never goes up in a straight line.
There is plenty of uncertainty in the world (hasn’t that always been the case?) and we are bombarded with bad news daily. I’ll end this post with the following comment from Buffett’s recently released 2015 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, which I largely agree with:
“For 240 years it's been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start. America’s golden goose of commerce and innovation will continue to lay more and larger eggs. America’s social security promises will be honored and perhaps made more generous. And, yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did.”