Is the economy at an inflection point, or are we simply in the calm before the storm? Though economic reports have been relatively muted on balance, they have also come in somewhat above expectations in recent weeks – particularly the advance estimate of third quarter GDP at 2%, and October non-farm payrolls at 171,000. The lack of clear deterioration in recent reports begs the question of whether this is enough to dispose of any concern about recession, and instead look forward to continued positive – if slow – economic progress.
The answer to that question largely depends on how one draws inferences from economic data. The consensus of Wall Street economists, as well as the broader economic consensus, has never successfully identified a U.S. recession until well after it has begun. I believe that much of the reason is that economists tend to interpret reports one-by-one as what I’ve called a “stream of anecdotes.” From that perspective, a series of positive anecdotes, such as the reports we’ve recently seen on GDP and non-farm payrolls, encourages views that the economic landscape is all clear.
The problem is that the stream of anecdotes approach places no structure on the data – there is no analysis of leading/lagging or upstream/downstream relationships, no examination of the frequency and size of revisions to the data – particularly around economic turning points – and no attempt to place the data points into a larger “gestalt” that captures relationships between dozens of other economic reports. Moreover, it’s natural for analysts to gauge “trends” by comparing recent reports to past data, with a look-back horizon somewhere in the range of 13-26 weeks. If analysts then form expectations by extrapolating recent surprises, it then becomes very easy to produce regular “cycles” of economic surprises. We’ve been able to generate that phenomenon even using randomly generated data. In practice, the cycle of economic “surprises” tends to run about 44-weeks in U.S. data (see The Data Generating Process). As it happens, much to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists, we would expect the present cycle to peak out roughly the week of the election.
In any event, a series of positive economic surprises can easily be interpreted as an important inflection point. Looking deeper into the data, however, we really don’t see the sort of broad, persistent strength in economic reports or leading indicators that would indicate a significant shift in economic fundamentals. To the contrary, we continue to believe that the U.S. entered a recession last quarter and that some of the more prominent data points (GDP, non-farm payrolls) will be revised downward within several quarters, as we’ve regularly seen around economic turning points throughout history. The regular pattern of revisions around economic turning points has also been emphasized by ECRI, which uses much different methods than we do, but shares our concerns about recession risk. We could hardly choose better company on this particular deserted island.