Yield Spread Confirming Recession Call
Recession. It is now becoming clearer, even to the mainstream media, that the "Big 'R'" is rapidly approaching, or already upon us. Without further stimulus from the government the economy will continue its slide into negative growth. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the "Calvary" will be charging to the rescue anytime soon. Bernanke, at this point has effectively punted to the Whitehouse for stimulative action. The Whitehouse is embroiled in partisan politics which will keep any action from occurring until most likely after the next election. This leaves the economy and the financial markets to their own devices, and much like kids without parental supervision, they are running amok.
I have been very vocal as of late commenting on the fact that a recession is fast approaching. The trends of the economic numbers have all soured to the negative. From manufacturing to personal incomes to sentiment they all are signaling a recession lay ahead. Another confirming indicator of a recessionary track is the spread in yields between junk bonds and high quality bonds. The chart here shows two different yield spreads. The blue represents the difference in yields between AAA rated corporate bonds to BB rated bonds while the red represents the spread between 10-yr government treasuries to BB rated bonds. The dotted horizontal lines represent when these spreads have signaled recessions in the economy.
When the economy is strong the spread between BB (Junk Bonds) and AAA Bonds or Government treasuries is much lower as the perceived risk of default on payment is lower. In times of economic stress or recession the perceived risk of default or failure is much greater. Currently, spreads at these levels are very indicative of economic stress and recessions. The perceived risk of corporate failure is rising and spreads are widening as money leaves high risk bonds (driving interest rates higher) and moves to safer yielding bonds (keeping rates lower). The wider the spread the harder it is for weak companies to access capital and corporate failures rise.
On Friday, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute reviewed the weight of ECRI's research, observing "Now it's a done deal. We are going into a recession."
The spread in yields combined with our own research as well as that of the ECRI, which is a very conservative organization with calls generally way ahead of the consensus as we have repeatedly been, confirms that our views are most likely the correct one.
While the media tends to view the economy from one report to the next what is important is to understand the trend and the balance of the data on the whole. Understanding the trend and balance will make you very unpopular with the rest of the world that consistently ops for the "glass half full" view but will keep you from losing a lot of money in the long run.
John Hussman summed this view up well; "In contrast, good economists think about the economy as a system - where multiple sectors interact. We tend to use words like 'equilibrium' and 'syndrome' when we talk about economic data - emphasizing that the best signals involve a whole conformation of evidence, not one or two indicators, where the data - in combination - captures a particular signature of recession or recovery.
Look at how Achuthan described the situation on CNBC on Friday, and you'll see a good example of this sort of thinking:
'This is a done deal. We are going into a recession. We've been very objective about getting to this point, but last week we announced to our clients that we're slipping into a recession. This is the first time I'm saying it publicly. A broad range - this is not based on any one indicator - this is based on dozens of indicators for the United States - there is a contagion among those forward looking indicators that we only see at the onset of a business cycle recession.. These leading indicators, which are objective.. they have a certain pattern that they present in front of a recession, and that is in, that is in right now.'
'A recession is a process, and I think a lot of people don't understand that; they're looking for two negative quarters of GDP. But it is a process where sales disappoint, so production falls, employment falls, income falls, and then sales fall. That vicious circle has started. You're looking at the forward drivers of that, which are different indicators - there's not one - everything's imperfect. The Weekly Leading Index .. that is saying unequivocally, this is recession. Long Leading Index, which has a longer lead, is saying recession. Service sector indicators, non-financial services where 5 out of 8 Americans work, plunging. Manufacturing, going into contraction. Exports, collapsing. This is a deadly combination, we are not going to escape this, and it is a new recession.'
For investors, if you believe that current analyst estimates of forward operating earnings are correct, and you believe that the inappropriate bubble-era benchmarks for price-to-forward operating earnings are actually valid, and you've ignored all evidence that the Fed Model is spectacularly devoid of validity, and you believe that the only course for valuations is to move toward those misguided benchmarks regardless of what happens to Europe or the U.S. economy, then it's easy to believe that stocks will head higher. For our part, we believe none of those things..."
We agree with John on this point. These are points that we have written extensively on in the past. In a low growth economic environment the persistent call for high growth rates in stock prices is dumbfounding. History tells us that the corporate earnings, and ultimately capital appreciation, cannot grow faster than the economy for long. Corporate earnings, and ultimately the prices paid for those earnings, are a reflection of the economy and not vice versa.
There is one final key point to all of this as it relates to the yield spread. Investors face not only an oncoming recession here but also a probable sovereign default and recession in Europe. The compounding of these factors translates into heightened credit risk here in the U.S. (as noted by credit spreads jumping higher recently) and corporations do not borrow at the 10-year treasury rate. They borrow from the bond market and the rising costs of borrowing due to rising credit risk impacts corporate profitability. Expectations for earnings growth going into 2012 is still extremely high with current estimates sitting at an all-time record for the S&P 500 index next year. The reality of that occurring is almost nil. In turn, this means that prices will have to be adjusted for the reality of a recessionary economy which is why the average decline of stocks during a recession is about 33%.John Hussman summed our current stance up very well: "Still, as always, we're data-driven, and there are possible combinations of evidence (not in hand at the moment) that could move us to a modestly or moderately constructive investment stance even in the context of broader economic risks. My impression continues to be that the best hope for a sustained advance (early on, probably only several weeks or a few months in duration) is from substantially lower levels, but we'll take our evidence as it comes. Suffice it to say that we remain defensive here, but are quite willing to shift our investment stance if the evidence supports that." Well said.