Worldwide: The US And The R Word

Last Updated: 15 February 2016
Article by Ian Stewart

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

2016 started with markets focused on the problems of the Chinese economy. Five weeks later, the focus has switched to the state of the US economy.

There's more nervousness about US growth today than at any time since the summer of 2011, when the US government seemed close to defaulting on its debts and the euro crisis was kicking off.

The R word – recession – is starting to crop up in the news headlines. In the last few days we've spotted: "US Recession is Back on the Table", "US recession looms", "Portfolio Moves as US Recession Signals intensify".

The American economy has been growing for the last five years and, until very recently, was seen as a bright spot in the global economy. When, in December, we asked UK Chief Financial Officers to name the region of the world economy about which they were most optimistic for 2016, the resounding answer was the US. In December the US Federal Reserve felt sufficiently confident about America's recovery to raise interest rates for the first time in almost ten years.

So why are we hearing talk of a US recession?

The most worrying set of indicators cover the manufacturing sector. Industrial output is declining for the first time since the Great Recession. Domestic and external demand for US manufactured goods is weak. Durable goods orders – widely seen as a lead indicator for manufacturing – have fallen by 7.0% since the summer.

A slowing Chinese economy, weakness in other emerging markets, sluggish European demand and the soaring US dollar have hit demand for US products.

Corporate profitability has suffered and this is weighing on investment. The energy and mining industries have been hit by collapsing commodity prices, with investment and exploration spending down by 35% last year. Given that the energy and mining industries have accounted for roughly half the growth in non-financial capital spending in the last six years the slowdown in spending here is significant.

Businesses have enjoyed easy access to cheap credit for the last 5 years, but that seems to be changing. The Federal Reserve's credit conditions survey shows banks have become markedly less willing to lend to corporates. In a classic sign of growing risk in the corporate sector the gap between interest rates on corporate bonds and government bonds have widened.

So the bad news in the US comes from manufacturing, the extractive industries, exports and corporate profits. This sounds like an awful lot of the US economy - until one considers that two thirds of US GDP is accounted for by consumer spending.

Here, the story is rosier. Rising wages, cheap energy and food prices and a strong dollar have boosted consumer spending power. Consumer spending remains resilient. A record 17.4 million light vehicles were sold last year and the housing market is buoyant.

The jobs market is in good shape too. Unemployment, which accounts for 4.9% of the workforce, is at its lowest level since the financial crisis. It is becoming easier to find full-time work: vacancies are back to their previous high and the number of people working part-time because they are unable to find full-time work has fallen by 11% in the last 12 months.

The worry is that weakness in the industrial sector and in equity markets could jump across to the rest of the US economy, through, for instance, a squeeze on wages or hiring. The sharp slowdown in service sector activity recorded in the latest Purchasing Managers Survey seemed, to some, like an ominous portent.

If jobs, consumer confidence or incomes start to slide, economists will be rushing to revise down their forecasts for US growth this year.

* The headwinds for the US economy have increased. But a US recession this year looks like an outside risk. A Financial Times poll of economists last week showed that economists see a 20% of the US falling into recession this year. A happier way of stating the same fact is that economists see an 80% probability that the US will avoid a recession this year.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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