The Perennial Obsession With Constantly Predicting Recessions

Do you expect a recession… soon? Of course you do because you’re constantly bombarded with predictions that a new downturn is imminent—year after year. According to a variety of “experts,” the US has been on the cusp of a new contraction ever since the last recession ended more than seven years ago. Yet the US economy has continued to expand, albeit in fits and starts and delivering subpar results relative to the historical record. But for the moment, the recovery that began in mid-2009 remains in force, based on the latest numbers published to date.

Predicting otherwise, continually, is a staple among the usual suspects. The projections, however, are conspicuous only for being wrong, so far. In time, a new recession will strike. But forever seeing a new downturn around the next corner is a short cut to failure, whether you’re managing an investment portfolio or running a business. Unless, of course, you’re in the media business or selling books and newsletters that traffic in disaster scenarios.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. If you value a higher standard for business cycle analysis, and you should, a statistically robust econometric framework is the only game in town. Nothing’s perfect, but monitoring recession risk with a diversified set of indicators is the worst strategy, except when compared with everything else. As for rolling the dice by reading the headlines du jour, well, let’s just say that history hasn’t been kind to this approach, as the following examples from recent history remind:

The odds of a U.S. recession may be as high as 50 percent following last week’s vote in the U.K. to exit the European Union, according to Bill Gross, manager of the Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund.
Bloomberg, Jun. 27, 2016

If [Donald Trump] were elected, I would expect a protracted recession to begin within 18 months.
Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, via The Washington Post, Jun. 5, 2016

Sam Zell: Global Woes Will Likely Push U.S. Into Recession
The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 19, 2016

Albert Edwards, the notoriously bearish analyst at the French bank Societe Generale, released a note on Thursday highlighting that his “failsafe recession indicator” had stopped flashing amber and had turned to red.
CNBC, Apr. 7, 2016

Jim Rogers: There’s a 100% Probability of a U.S. Recession Within a Year
Bloomberg, Mar. 4, 2016

Wolf Street: Rail Shipments Indicate US Heading for Recession
NewsMax, Jan. 11, 2016

“As the U.S. [economic expansion] enters year seven the cumulative probability of a recession in the next year rises to 65%,” writes Citi economists.
Fortune, Dec. 7, 2015

“Economists seldom call recessions, downturns, recoveries or periods of booms unless they are staring them in the face. We believe this may be one of those times.”
Willem Buiter, chief global economist at Citigroup, via The Guardian, Sep. 9, 2015

Recession coming in 2015: Raoul Pal
CNBC, Jun. 5, 2015

Economist who predicted busted housing bubble says another recession is coming
The Mercury News, Jul. 22, 2014

The United States economy may have been one of the first in the world to have escaped the last recession, but economists are already trying to work out when the next one will hit – and the answer is: probably sooner than you think.
CNBC, Oct. 7, 2013

Tax hikes and spending cuts, along with other headwinds, will drag down the economy as the year progresses and eventually contribute to a mild recession in 2014, predicts Alan Beaulieu, an economist with ITR Economics.
The Denver Post, Jan. 8, 2013

‘We’re Heading for Recession,’ Zell Predicts for Economy
CNBC, Oct. 2, 2012

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the [Economic Cycle Research Institute’s] chief operations officer.
The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2011

And Now Here Comes The Recession Of 2011…
John Maudlin, Maudlin Economics, via Business Insider, Aug. 20, 2011

Speaking in an interview with business television channel CNBC, [Jim Rogers] said that “since the beginning of time” there has been a recession every four-to-six years, and that means another one is due around 2012.
The Telegraph, Jul. 27, 2010

8 thoughts on “The Perennial Obsession With Constantly Predicting Recessions

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  4. James Picerno Post author

    Nick,
    Part of the answer (or perhaps most) is bound up with the focus on attracting media attention. Relatively extreme views are entertaining and draw a crowd, and so the media are naturally attracted to drama, economic or otherwise. But economic conditions are usually rather boring in the sense that month to month changes are modest. Whether anyone takes the continual drumbeat of dark forecasts seriously is debatable, but the macro version of rubber-necking is alive and well. The crowd loves a good story, especially one with villains.
    –JP

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