Note from dshort: Now updated through September 6th. I highly recommended the Institute’s public commentaries, especially Viewing the "Great Recession" in Hi-Def. Scroll down to the entry dated September 1. I’ve reprinted the concluding two paragraphs below as an inducement to read it in its entirety.
There probably hasn’t been two separate recessions in three years, simply one that has evolved in significant ways. But if this really is a "double dip" recession, then our data indicates that the "Great Recession" of 2008 was merely the precursor, and not the main event. It is this current dip that we should be really concerned about; the current contraction in consumer demand is about structural changes in consumer behavior, whereas the "first dip" was about short term loss of consumer confidence.
"This recession has been complex and constantly evolving in ways that policy makers have not been able to understand through their low resolution lenses. As a consequence their policy responses have been misguided, ineffective and wasteful. The Federal Reserve may be able to save the banking system by being the "lender of last resort", but it is powerless to change perhaps the one thing that John Maynard Keynes got right — and what he mischaracterized as a "Paradox of Thrift" — as over 100 million U.S. households become economic "loose cannons", acting exclusively in their own best interests in 100 million different ways.
The charts below focus on the ‘Trailing Quarter’ Growth Index, which is computed as a 91-day moving average for the year-over-year growth/contraction of the Weighted Composite Index, an index that tracks near real-time consumer behavior in a wide range of consumption categories. The Growth Index is a calculated metric that smooths the volatility and gives a better sense of expansions and contractions in consumption.
The 91-day period is useful for comparison with key quarterly metrics such as GDP. Since the consumer accounts for over two-thirds of the US economy, one would expect that a well-crafted index of consumer behavior would serve as a leading indicator. As the chart suggests, during the five-year history of the index, it has generally lived up to that expectation. Actually, the chart understates the degree to which the Growth Index leads GDP. Why? Because the advance estimates for GDP are released a month after the end of the quarter in question, so the Growth Index lead time has been substantial.
Has the Growth Index also served as a leading indicator of the stock market? The next chart is an overlay of the index and the S&P 500. The Growth Index clearly peaked before the market in 2007 and bottomed in late August of 2008, over six months before the market low in March 2009.
The most recent peak in the Growth Index was around the first of September, 2009, almost eight months before the interim high in the S&P 500 on April 23rd. Since its peak, the Growth Index has declined dramatically and is now deep into contraction territory.
It’s important to remember that the Growth Index is a moving average of year-over-year expansion/contraction whereas the market is a continuous record of value. Even so, the pattern is remarkable. The question is whether the latest dip in the Growth Index is signaling a substantial market decline like in 2008-2009 or a buying opportunity like in June 2006. I’ve also highlighted the recession that officially began in December 2007 and unofficially ended last summer. As a leading indicator for GDP, the Growth Index also offers an early warning for possible recessions.
Perhaps the most astonishing chart is the one below, which compares the contraction that began in 2008 with the one that began in January of this year. I’ve reproduced a chart on the Institute’s website and added annotations for the elapsed time and the relationship of the contractions to major market milestones.
Among other things, this chart illustrates the more subtle and pernicious nature of the current decline in consumption. The 2010 decline is has equaled the length of the complete 2008 contraction cycle — the combined contraction and recovery. Yet in the current cycle we’re still trending down.
The Consumer Metrics Institute’s Growth Index hasn’t been in operation very long, but thus far it has been an effective leading indicator of GDP. As such, the prospect of a double-dip recession, something that’s happened only once since the Great Depression, remains a distinct possibility. That earlier double dip was a 6-month recession from January 1980 to July 1980, a 12-month recovery, and a 16-month of recession from July 1981 to November 1982. The one bit of good news for that earlier period is that the second dip coincided with the end of a secular bear market and the beginning of an 18-year cycle of accelerating growth.