Lighthouse Investment Management
Macro Report - US economic indicators - February 2013 Page 3
Recessions are bad for company profits and hence stock prices. Knowing when an economic slow-downlooms can give important clues about asset class selection.In the US, the beginning and the end points of recessions are declared by the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research). The NBER defines recessions as a "significant decline in economic activity spreadacross the economy" (not, as often believed, as two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth).The NBER takes it's time to date the beginning and the end of a down-turn; it announced the beginningof the last recession (December 2007) only on December 1, 2008 - one year later. By that time, the S&P500 Index had fallen from 1,575 points to 741. Similarly, the end of the recession in June 2009 wasannounced on September 20, 2010 - more than one year later. By that time, the S&P 500 had alreadysoared from 940 points to 1,142.Waiting for the NBER to declare beginning and end of recessions would have led to inferior investmentresults (the NBER is correct in taking it's time, since many economic indicators are being revised multipletimes as preliminary data gets updated).Traditional leading indicators include values such as the stock market and the slope of the yield curve.However, the stock market does not seem very good at anticipating recessions, as the S&P 500 indexmarked an all-time high in mid-October 2007, a mere six weeks before the most severe recession of thelast 8 decades began.The yield curve has historically been a very good warning sign of recessions, as the Federal Reserve Bankwas forced to increase short-term rates in order to cool an overheating economy (thereby triggering arecession). However, with short-term interest rates near zero for the foreseeable future, the yield curvecould only invert if long-term yields dipped into negative territory. While not entirely impossible(negative yields for up to 2 year maturities have been observed in German, Swiss, Danish and othergovernment bond markets) it is very unlikely to happen in US Treasuries. Therefore, the slope of the USyield curve is unlikely to give any hints about a recession occurring under ZIRP (zero-interest-rate-policy).Indicators published by other institutions, such as ECRI (Economic Cycle Research Institute), areproprietary and not transparent, giving investors only the choice to "believe-it-or-leave-it".The Conference Board Leading Indicator includes questionable values such as the S&P 500 Index, theslope of the US yield curve and M2 money supply (which we have found to have little correlation witheconomic cycles).As most recessions last rarely longer than a year, the economy usually had already exited a recession bythe time the NBER declared it to be in one.