November 12, 2017
For the past 16 decades, there has been a least one recession per decade. Given that this bull market is eight years old without a recession, some investors may be concerned that their portfolio mix is a bit on the risky side. Here’s something that can help investors map the road ahead.
For several decades, the Federal Reserve has used the Phillips Curve to help guide monetary policy. The curve is an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment. Picture a see saw. When unemployment is low, demand for labor and inflation are high. When unemployment is high, demand for labor and inflation are low (See wonky notes at end).
The monetary economist Milton Friedman said the relationship of the Phillips curve was weak, and economists continue to debate the validity of the curve. As we’ll see, the curve is valid until it’s not. The breakdown of the relationship between employment and inflation signals the onset of a recession.
Let’s compare the annual change in employment, the inverse of unemployment, and inflation. We should see these two series move in lockstep. As these series diverge, the onset of a recession draws near.
In a divergence, one series goes up while one series goes down. The difference, or spread, between the two grows larger. Spread is a term usually associated with interest rates, so I’ll call this difference the GAP.
In the chart below, I have marked fully developed divergences with an arrow marked “PC”. Each is a recession. I’ll show both series first, so you can see the divergences develop. I’ll show a graph of the GAP at the end.
As you can see to the right of the graph, no divergences have formed since the financial crisis.
Shown in the chart below are the beginnings of divergences, marked with an orange square. I’ve also included a few convergences, when the series move toward each other. These usually precede a drop in the stock market but no recession.
Here’s a graph of the difference, or GAP, between the two series in the last 11 years.
Fundamental economic indicators like this one can help an investor avoid longer term meltdowns. Can investors avoid all the bear markets? No. Financial, not economic, causes lay behind the sharp downturns of the 1987 October meltdown and 1998 Asian financial crisis.
What about the 2008 financial crisis? A year earlier, in October 2007, this indicator had already signaled trouble ahead based on the high and steadily growing GAP.
What about the dot com crash? In February 2001, several months after the market’s height, the growing GAP warned of a rocky road ahead. A recession began a month later. The downturn in the market would last another two years.
Readers who want to check on this indicator themselves can follow this link.
In Econ101, students become familiar with a graph of this curve. Readers who want to dive deeper can see this article from Dr. Econ at the Federal Reserve. There is also a Khan Academy video .