An Imminent Likelihood of Recession
Since October, the economic evidence has shifted from supporting a growing risk of recession, to a guarded expectation of recession, to the present conclusion that a U.S. recession is not only a risk but an imminent likelihood, awaiting confirmation that typically only emerges after a recession is actually in progress. The reason the consensus of economists has never anticipated a recession is that so few distinguish between leading and lagging data, so they incorrectly interpret the information available at the start of a recession as “mixed” when, placed in proper sequence, the evidence forms a single, coherent freight train.
While I’m among the only observers that anticipated oncoming recessions and market collapses in 2000 and 2007 (shifting to a constructive outlook in-between), I also admittedly anticipated a recession in 2011-2012 that did not emerge. Understand my error, so you don’t incorrectly dismiss the current evidence. Though not all of the components of our Recession Warning Composite were active in 2011-2012, I relied on an alternate criterion based on employment deterioration, which was later revised away, and I relied too little on confirmation from market action, which is the hinge between bubbles and crashes, between benign and recessionary deterioration in leading economic data, and between Fed easing that supports speculation and Fed easing that merely accompanies a collapse.
Much of the disruption in the financial markets last week can be traced to data that continue to amplify the likelihood of recession. Remember the sequence. The earliest indications of an oncoming economic shift are observable in the financial markets, particularly in changes in the uniformity or divergence of broad market internals, and widening or narrowing of credit spreads between debt securities of varying creditworthiness. The next indication comes from measures of what I’ve called “order surplus”: new orders, plus backlogs, minus inventories. When orders and backlogs are falling while inventories are rising, a slowdown in production typically follows. If an economic downturn is broad, “coincident” measures of supply and demand, such as industrial production and real retail sales, then slow at about the same time. Real income slows shortly thereafter. The last to move are employment indicators - starting with initial claims for unemployment, next payroll job growth, and finally, the duration of unemployment.
Last week, following a long period of poor internals and weakening order surplus, we observed fresh declines in industrial production and retail sales. Industrial production has now also declined on a year-over-year basis. The weakness we presently observe is strongly associated with recession. The chart below (h/t Jeff Wilson) plots the cumulative number of month-over-month declines in Industrial Production during the preceding 12-month period, in data since 1919. Recessions are shaded. The current total of 10 (of a possible 12) month-over-month declines in Industrial Production has never been observed except in the context of a U.S. recession. Historically, as Dick Van Patten would say, eight is enough.
A broad range of other leading measures, joined by deterioration in market action, point to the same conclusion that recession is now the dominant likelihood. Among confirming indicators that generally emerge fairly early once a recession has taken hold, we would be particularly attentive to the following: a sudden drop in consumer confidence about 20 points below its 12-month average (which would currently equate to a drop to the 75 level on the Conference Board measure), a decline in aggregate hours worked below its level 3-months prior, a year-over-year increase of about 20% in new claims for unemployment (which would currently equate to a level of about 340,000 weekly new claims), and slowing growth in real personal income.
Valuations, market internals, and crash risk
It’s largely irrelevant whether the Federal Reserve made a “policy mistake” by raising interest rates in December. As I’ve noted before, that would vastly understate the actual damage contributed by the Fed. The real policy mistake was to provoke years of yield-seeking speculation through Ben Bernanke’s deranged policy of quantitative easing. Just as the global financial collapse was the result of years of unbridled yield-seeking speculation in mortgage securities, the growing economic disruptions in the developing world are the result of years of unbridled yield-seeking capital flows that resulted from that policy, and the copycat behavior of other global central banks. The record ratio of corporate debt to corporate gross value added (GVA), and the elevation of equity market capitalizations to the highest ratio of GVA in history, outside of the 2000 bubble peak, have the same origins.
Understand that just as mortgage securities were the primary objects of yield-seeking speculation during the housing bubble, equity securities have been the primary objects during the QE-bubble. This is not merely because of direct speculation and record levels of margin debt among investors. As covenant-lite debt issuance soared in recent years, the primary use of the proceeds was not the accumulation of productive capital goods and equipment, but rather financial speculation in the form of acquisitions, leveraged buyouts, and corporate stock repurchases at historically rich valuations. Once valuations become obscenely elevated, a wicked downside is unavoidably baked in the cake. That downside will emerge primarily during periods such as the present, where deterioration in market internals suggests risk-aversion among investors, in contrast to the internal uniformity that prevailed until mid-2014, which reflected a broad willingness among investors to speculate and embrace greater exposure to risk assets.
To see how both corporate debt and equity capitalizations have soared to record levels relative to corporate GVA, and to understand why these imply dismal investment returns over the coming 10-12 years, see The Next Big Short: The Third Crest of a Rolling Tsunami. That commentary also includes a box detailing my own errors in the recent half cycle and the adaptations we introduced as a result, which require explicit deterioration in market internals (as we presently observe) before taking a hard-negative outlook. I openly discuss my own stumbles so that adherents and critics alike might benefit from the right lessons, before it becomes too late to do so.
We’ll certainly welcome outcomes that better reflect our experience in other complete market cycles, but we won’t do touchdown dances if the market collapses. The likely distress as the current market cycle is completed is something I wish on nobody. The unfortunate reality is that someone will have to hold stocks over the completion of this cycle, and it would best be those who have either carefully evaluated and dismissed our concerns, or those who have appropriate risk tolerances and investment horizons to weather the likely 40-55% loss in the S&P 500 that would comprise a rather run-of-the-mill retreat from the 2015 valuation extremes.
Our concerns about both the economy and the financial markets would be less immediate if we were to observe uniformly favorable market internals across a broad range of individual stocks, industries, sectors, and security types (including debt securities of varying creditworthiness). Instead, we currently observe negative leadership, weak breadth, and dismal participation, with only 17% of individual stocks still above their own respective 200-day moving averages. Meanwhile, credit spreads spiked to fresh highs last week.
On a short-term basis, dismal market internals may be indicative of oversold conditions, but the prospect of a recovery on that basis is extremely unreliable in an environment where valuations remain extreme and market internals demonstrate few positive divergences. I continue to believe that a break of the prior support area around 1820-1850 on the S&P 500 could be the catalyst for self-reinforcing panic selling pressure among trend-following investors.
Unfortunately, on historically reliable measures of value, current prices are nowhere near the levels that would be expected to produce adequate long-term total returns (see Rarefied Air: Valuations and Subsequent Market Returns). So there is presently an enormous chasm between the point where self-reinforcing selling pressure by speculators is likely to emerge, and the much lower point where balancing buying pressure by value-conscious investors is likely to support the market. Because every seller necessarily requires a buyer, the enormous gap between the two represents substantial crash risk.
Remember that our own central lesson in recent years was to avoid inadvertently prioritizing overextended conditions (e.g. overvalued, overbought, overbullish) over-and-above the condition of market internals. Provided that market internals are uniformly favorable, even obscenely overvalued markets tend to be resistant to severe losses, and are instead inclined to become even more overvalued. Conversely, it would be a mistake here to prioritize short-term oversold conditions over-and-above the dismal behavior of market internals and credit spreads, particularly given that overvaluation remains extreme on reliable measures. In the current environment, oversold conditions are prone to becoming even more deeply oversold, not only because internals are weak, but because the economic evidence is quickly confirming an oncoming recession that remains almost universally denied by market participants.
In Honor and Remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King noted that he tried to speak on the subject below at least once a year. That still seems an appropriate way to honor him. If you've never read Dr. King's writings, this talk is a good place to start.
In a world so urgently in need of peace, it’s equally urgent to recognize that answering hatred with hatred never leads to that goal. My friend and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. King, has often said “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” The first peaceful step always begins with the recognition by each side that the person they would call their enemy also suffers. In our common humanity, each of us might be like the other if we had suffered the same way - whether that suffering takes the form of injustice, poverty, violence, abuse, or even ignorance. In a world where people - on both sides of the word “enemy” - seem so inclined to carelessly pour their reservoir of suffering onto others without recognizing their shared humanity, our best cause for hope still resides in the wisdom of peacemakers like Dr. King. One can’t read his words without coming away better for it.
Loving Your Enemies
November 17 1957
“I want to use as a subject from which to preach this morning a very familiar subject, and it is familiar to you because I have preached from this subject twice before to my knowing in this pulpit. I try to make it a, something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop along the way out of new experiences as I give these messages. Although the content is, the basic content is the same, new insights and new experiences naturally make for new illustrations.
“So I want to turn your attention to this subject: "Loving Your Enemies." It's so basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and theological orientation - the whole idea of love, the whole philosophy of love. In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: "Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.' But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven."
“Over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn't possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
“Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn't playing. He realized that it's hard to love your enemies. He realized that it's difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn't playing. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.
“Now first let us deal with this question, which is the practical question: How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self. And I'm sure that seems strange to you, that I start out telling you this morning that you love your enemies by beginning with a look at self. It seems to me that that is the first and foremost way to come to an adequate discovery to the how of this situation.
“Now, I'm aware of the fact that some people will not like you, not because of something you have done to them, but they just won't like you. But after looking at these things and admitting these things, we must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we've done deep down in the past, some personality attribute that we possess, something that we've done deep down in the past and we've forgotten about it; but it was that something that aroused the hate response within the individual. That is why I say, begin with yourself. There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.
“This is true in our international struggle. Democracy is the greatest form of government to my mind that man has ever conceived, but the weakness is that we have never touched it. We must face the fact that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from Asia and Africa is at bottom a revolt against the imperialism and colonialism perpetuated by Western civilization all these many years.
“And this is what Jesus means when he said: "How is it that you can see the mote in your brother's eye and not see the beam in your own eye?" And this is one of the tragedies of human nature. So we begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.
“A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.
“Somehow the "isness" of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls "the image of God," you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God's image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
“Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That's the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It's not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.
“The Greek language, as I've said so often before, is very powerful at this point. It comes to our aid beautifully in giving us the real meaning and depth of the whole philosophy of love. And I think it is quite apropos at this point, for you see the Greek language has three words for love, interestingly enough. It talks about love as eros. That's one word for love. Eros is a sort of, aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his dialogues, a sort of yearning of the soul for the realm of the gods. And it's come to us to be a sort of romantic love, though it's a beautiful love. Everybody has experienced eros in all of its beauty when you find some individual that is attractive to you and that you pour out all of your like and your love on that individual. That is eros, you see, and it's a powerful, beautiful love that is given to us through all of the beauty of literature; we read about it.
“Then the Greek language talks about philia, and that's another type of love that's also beautiful. It is a sort of intimate affection between personal friends. And this is the type of love that you have for those persons that you're friendly with, your intimate friends, or people that you call on the telephone and you go by to have dinner with, and your roommate in college and that type of thing. It's a sort of reciprocal love. On this level, you like a person because that person likes you. You love on this level, because you are loved. You love on this level, because there's something about the person you love that is likeable to you. This too is a beautiful love. You can communicate with a person; you have certain things in common; you like to do things together. This is philia.
“The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it's what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you've ever seen.
“And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it's significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don't like what they do to me. I don't like what they say about me and other people. I don't like their attitudes. I don't like some of the things they're doing. I don't like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
“Now for the few moments left, let us move from the practical how to the theoretical why. It's not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus' thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that's the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate - that it doesn't cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
“I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn't dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I'm going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I'm going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don't do that. There'd be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway."
“Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn't it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junk heap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn't have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.
"Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
“There's another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can't see straight when you hate. You can't walk straight when you hate. You can't stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That's what hate does. You can't see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.
“The way to be integrated with yourself is be sure that you meet every situation of life with an abounding love. Never hate, because it ends up in tragic, neurotic responses. Psychologists and psychiatrists are telling us today that the more we hate, the more we develop guilt feelings and we begin to subconsciously repress or consciously suppress certain emotions, and they all stack up in our subconscious selves and make for tragic, neurotic responses. And may this not be the neuroses of many individuals as they confront life that that is an element of hate there. And modern psychology is calling on us now to love. But long before modern psychology came into being, the world's greatest psychologist who walked around the hills of Galilee told us to love. He looked at men and said: "Love your enemies; don't hate anybody." It's not enough - to love your friends - because when you start hating anybody, it destroys the very center of your creative response to life and the universe; so love everybody. Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That's why Jesus says, "Love your enemies." Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they're mistreating you. Here's the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don't do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can't stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they're mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they'll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That's love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There's something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
“There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn't the way."
“As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that.
“And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals. There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way. It is an eternal reminder to a generation depending on nuclear and atomic energy, a generation depending on physical violence, that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.
“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I'm foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God's kingdom.”