It is impossible to make both precise and accurate forecasts of a country’s rate of economic growth, even a year ahead. And the same goes for other macroeconomic variables, such as the rate of unemployment or the balance of trade. The reason is that there are so many determinants of these variables, such as political decisions or events, which themselves are unpredictable. Economics examines the effects of human interactions – it is a social science, not a natural science. And human behaviour is hard to forecast.
Nevertheless, economists do make forecasts. These are best estimates, taking into account a number of determinants that can be currently measured, such as tax or interest rate changes. These determinants, or ‘leading indicators’, have been found to be related to future outcomes. For example, surveys of consumer and business confidence give a good indication of future consumer expenditure and investment – key components of GDP.
Leading indicators do not have to be directly causal. They could, instead, be a symptom of underlying changes that are themselves likely to affect the economy in the future. For example, changes in stock market prices may reflect changes in confidence or changes in liquidity. It is these changes that are likely to have a direct or indirect causal effect on future output, employment, prices, etc.
Macroeconomic models show the relationships between variables. They show how changes in one variable (e.g. increased investment) affect other variables (e.g. real GDP or productivity). So when an indicator changes, such as a rise in interest rates, economists use these models to estimate the likely effect, assuming other things remain constant (ceteris paribus). The problem is that other things don’t remain constant. The economy is buffeted around by a huge range of events that can affect the outcome of the change in the indicator or the variable(s) it reflects.
Forecasting can never therefore be 100% accurate (except by chance). Nevertheless, by carefully studying leading indicators, economists can get a good idea of the likely course of the economy.
Leading indicators of the US economy
At the start of 2019, several leading indicators are suggesting the US economy is likely to slow and might even go into recession. The following are some of the main examples.
Political events. This is the most obvious leading indicator. If decisions are made that are likely to have an adverse effect on growth, a recession may follow. For example, decisions in the UK Parliament over Brexit will directly impact on UK growth.
As far as the USA is concerned, President Trump’s decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from a range of countries, including China, the EU and Canada, led these countries to retaliate with tariffs on US imports. A tariff war has a negative effect on growth. It is a negative sum game. Of course, there may be a settlement, with countries agreeing to reduce or eliminate these new tariffs, but the danger is that the trade war may continue long enough to do serious damage to global economic growth.
But just how damaging it is likely to be is impossible to predict. That depends on future political decisions, not just those of the recent past. Will there be a global rise in protectionism or will countries pull back from such a destructive scenario? On 29 December, President Trump tweeted, ‘Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China. Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!’ China said that it was willing to work with the USA over reaching a consensus on trade.
Rises in interest rates. If these are in response to a situation of excess demand, they can be seen as a means of bringing inflation down to the target level or of closing a positive output gap, where real national income is above its potential level. They would not signify an impending recession. But many commentators have interpreted rises in interest rates in the USA as being different from this.
The Fed is keen to raise interest rates above the historic low rates that were seen as an ’emergency’ response to the financial crisis of 2007–8. It is also keen to reverse the policy of quantitative easing and has begun what might be described as ‘quantitative tightening’: not buying new bonds when existing ones that it purchased during rounds of QE mature. It refers to this interest rate and money supply policy as ‘policy normalization‘. The Fed maintains that such policy is ‘consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective over the medium term’.
However, many commentators, including President Trump, have accused the Fed of going too fast in this process and of excessively dampening the economy. It has already raised the Federal Funds Rate nine times by 0.25 percentage points each time since December 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart). What is more, announcing that the policy will continue makes such announcements themselves a leading indicator of future rises in interest rates, which are a leading indicator of subsequent effects on aggregate demand. The Fed has stated that it expects to make two more 0.25 percentage point rises during 2019.
Surveys of consumer and business confidence. These are some of the most significant leading indicators as consumer confidence affects consumer spending and business confidence affects investment. According to the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook, an influential survey of Chief Financial Officers, ‘Nearly half (48.6 per cent) of US CFOs believe that the US will be in recession by the end of 2019, and 82 per cent believe that a recession will have begun by the end of 2020’. Such surveys can become self-fulfilling, as a reported decline in confidence can itself undermine confidence as both firms and consumers ‘catch’ the mood of pessimism.
Stock market volatility. When stock markets exhibit large falls and rises, this is often a symptom of uncertainty; and uncertainty can undermine investment. Stock market volatility can thus be a leading indicator of an impending recession. One indicator of such volatility is the VIX index. This is a measure of ’30-day expected volatility of the US stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility – widely reported by financial media and closely followed by a variety of market participants as a daily market indicator.’ The higher the index, the greater the volatility. Since 2004, it has averaged 18.4; from 17 to 28 December 2018, it averaged 28.8. From 13 to 24 December, the DOW Jones Industrial Average share index fell by 11.4 per cent, only to rise by 6.2 per cent by 27 December. On 26 December, the S&P 500 index rallied 5 per cent, its best gain since March 2009.
Not all cases of market volatility, however, signify an impending recession, but high levels of volatility are one more sign of investor nervousness.
Oil prices. When oil prices fall, this can be explained by changes on the demand and/or supply side of the oil market. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past two months. Until October 2018, oil prices had been rising, with Brent Crude reaching $86 per barrel by early October. By the end of the year the price had fallen to just over $50 per barrel – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) Part of the explanation is a rise in supply, with shale oil production increasing and also increased output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite a commitment by the two countries to reduce supply. But the main reason is a fall in demand. This reflects both a fall in current demand and in anticipated future demand, with fears of oversupply causing oil companies to run down stocks.
Falling oil prices resulting from falling demand are thus an indicator of lack of confidence in the growth of future demand – a leading indicator of a slowing economy.
The yield curve. This depicts the yields on government debt with different lengths to maturity at a given point in time. Generally, the curve slopes upwards, showing higher rates of return on bonds with longer to maturity. This is illustrated by the blue line in the chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) This is as you would expect, with people requiring a higher rate of return on long-term lending, where there is normally greater uncertainty. But, as the Bloomberg article, ‘Don’t take your eyes off the yield curve‘ states:
Occasionally, the curve flips, with yields on short-term debt exceeding those on longer bonds. That’s normally a sign investors believe economic growth will slow and interest rates will eventually fall. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has shown that an inversion has preceded every US recession for the past 60 years.
The US economy is 37 quarters into what may prove to be its longest expansion on record. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect gross domestic product growth to come in at 2.9 percent this year, up from 2.2 percent last year. Wages are rising as unfilled vacancies hover near all-time highs.
With times this good, the biggest betting game on Wall Street is when they’ll go bad. Barclays Plc, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other banks are predicting inversion will happen sometime in 2019. The conventional wisdom: Afterward it’s only a matter of time – anywhere from 6 to 24 months – before a recession starts.
As you can see from the chart, the yield curve on 24 December 2018 was still slightly upward sloping (expect between 6-month and 1-year bonds) – but possibly ready to ‘flip’.
However, despite the power of an ‘inverted’ yield in predicting previous recessions, it may be less reliable now. The Fed, as we saw above, has already signalled that it expects to increase short-term rates in 2019, probably at least twice. That alone could make the yield curve flatter or even downward sloping. Nevertheless, it is still generally thought that a downward sloping yield curve would signal belief in a likely slowdown, if not outright recession.
So, is the USA heading for recession?
The trouble with indicators is that they suggest what is likely – not what will definitely happen. Governments and central banks are powerful agents. If they believed that a recession was likely, then fiscal and monetary policy could be adjusted. For example, the Fed could halt its interest rate rises and quantitative tightening, or even reverse them. Also, worries about protectionism may subside if the USA strikes new trade deals with various countries, as it did with Canada and Mexico in USMCA.
- A jarring new survey shows CEOs think a recession could strike as soon as year-end 2019
Business Insider, Joe Ciolli (17/12/18)
- 4 Recession Indicators to Watch Now
Barron’s, Campbell Harvey (20/12/18)
- 9 Reasons the US Will Have a Recession Next Year
24/7 Wall St, Douglas A. McIntyre (26/12/18)
- The global economy is living dangerously – but don’t expect superpowers to follow the 2008 script
Independent, Ben Chu (3/1/19)
- Could a recession be just around the corner?
The Conversation, Amitrajeet A Batabyal (6/12/18)
- The US is on the edge of the economic precipice – Trump may push it over
The Guardian, Robert Reich (23/12/18)
- US prepares to hit the wall as reckless Trump undoes years of hard work
The Guardian, (Business Leader) (23/12/18)
- The first signs of the next recession
New Statesman, Helen Thompson (23/11/18)
- Is a Recession Coming? CFOs Predict 2019 Recession, Majority Expect Pre-2020 Market Crash
Newsweek, Benjamin Fearnow (12/12/18)
- Trade slowdown coming at worst time for world economy, markets
Reuters, Jamie McGeever (19/12/18)
- How to spot the next recession
The Week, Jeff Spross (27/11/18)
- What Is a Recession, and Why Are People Talking About the Next One?
New York Times, Niraj Chokshi (17/12/180
- For the American Economy, Storm Clouds on the Horizon
New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (28/11/18)
- Don’t Take Your Eyes Off the Yield Curve
Bloomberg Businessweek, Liz McCormick and Jeanna Smialek (16/11/18)
- What to expect from 2019’s ‘post-peak’ economy
CNN, Larry Hatheway (19/12/18)
- Worried about the next recession? Here’s what to watch instead of the yield curve
Quartz, Gwynn Guilford (17/12/18)
- Leading Economic Indicators and How to Use Them
The Balance, Kimberly Amadeo (10/9/18)
Surveys and Data
- Define the term ‘recession’.
- Are periods of above-trend expansion necessarily followed by a recession?
- Give some examples of leading indicators other than those given above and discuss their likely reliability in predicting a recession.
- Find out what has been happening to confidence levels in the EU over the past 12 months. Does this provide evidence of an impending recession in the EU?
- For what reasons may there be lags between a change in an indicator and a change in the variables for which it is an indicator?
- Why has the shape of the yield curve previously been a good predictor of the future course of the economy? Is it likely to be at present?
- What is the relationship between interest rates, government bond prices (‘Treasuries’ in the USA) and the yield on such bonds?
It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.
According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.
In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.
“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”
This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:
“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”
Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:
“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”
Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)
- Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
- Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
- What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
- Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
- In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
- How could QE have been made more effective?
- What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?
Interest rates in the UK have been at a record low since 2009, recorded at just 0.5%. In July, the forward guidance from Mark Carney seemed to indicate that a rate rise would be likely towards the start of 2016. However, with the recovery of the British economy slowing, together with continuing problems in Europe and slowdowns in China, a rate rise has become less likely. Forward guidance hasn’t been particularly ‘guiding’, as a rate rise now seems most likely well into 2016 or even in 2017 and this is still very speculative.
Interest rates are a key tool of monetary policy and one of the government’s demand management policies. Low interest rates have remained in the UK as a means of stimulating economic growth, via influencing aggregate demand. Interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand, such as consumption – through affecting the incentive to save and spend and by affecting mortgage rates and disposable income. They affect investment by influencing the cost of borrowing and net exports through changing the exchange rate and hence the competitiveness of exports.
Low interest rates therefore help to boost all components of aggregate demand and this then should stimulate economic growth. While they have helped to do their job, circumstances across the global economy have acted in the opposite direction and so their effectiveness has been reduced.
Although the latest news on interest rates may suggest some worrying times for the UK, the information contained in the Bank of England’s Inflation Report isn’t all bad. Despite its predictions that the growth rate of the world economy will slow and inflation will remain weak, the predictions from August remain largely the same. The suggestion that interest rates will remain at 0.5% and that any increases are likely to be at a slow pace will flatten the yield curve, and, with predictions that inflation will remain weak, there will be few concerns that continuing low rates will cause inflationary pressures in the coming months. Mark Carney said:
“The lower path for Bank Rate implied by market yields would provide more than adequate support to domestic demand to bring inflation to target even in the face of global weakness.”
However, there are many critics of keeping interest rates down, both in the UK and the USA, in particular because of the implications for asset prices, in particular the housing market and for the growth in borrowing and hence credit debt. The Institute of Directors Chief Economist, James Sproute said:
“There is genuine apprehension over asset prices, the misallocation of capital and consumer debt…Borrowing is comfortably below the unsustainable pre-crisis levels, but with debt once against rising there is a need for vigilance…The question is, will the Bank look back on this unprecedented period of extraordinary monetary policy and wish they had acted sooner? The path of inaction may seem easier today, but maintaining rates this low, for this long, could prove a much riskier decision tomorrow.”
hanges in the strength of the global economy will certainly have a role to play in forming the opinions of the Monetary Policy Committee and it will also be a key event when the Federal Reserve pushes up its interest rates. This is certainly an area to keep watching, as it’s not a question of if rates will rise, but when.
Bank of England dampens prospects of early UK rate rise BBC News (5/11/15)
Bank of England Governor gets his forward guidance on interest rates wrong Independent, Ben Chu (6/11/15)
Interest rates set to remain at rock-bottom right through 2016 as Bank of England cuts UK growth and inflation forecasts This is Money, Adrian Lowery (5/11/15)
Pound slides as Bank of England suggests interest rates will stay low for longer – as it happened 5 November 2015 The Telegraph, Peter Spence (5/11/15)
UK’s record low interest rates should be raised next Februrary says NIESE The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (4/11/15)
Fresh signs of slowdown will force interest rates rise to be put on hold The Guardian, Katie Allen (2/11/15)
The perils of keeping interest rates so low The Telegraph, Andrew Sentence (6/11/15)
Time to ask why we are still in the era of ultra-low rates Financial Times, Chris Giles (4/11/15)
No interest rate rise until 2017: Joy for homeowners as Bank of England delays hike in mortgage costs again Mail Online, Matt Chorley (5/11/15)
Pound tumbles after Carney warns its strength threatens recovery Bloomberg, Lucy Meakin (5/11/15)
Is Carney hurt by wrong rate steer? BBC News, Robert Peston (5/11/15)
Data and Reports
Inflation Report Bank of England (August 2015)
Inflation Report Bank of England (November 2015)
Historical Fan Chart Data Bank of England (2015)
- Use and AD/AS diagram, explain how low interest rates affect the key components of aggregate demand and in turn how this will affect economic growth.
- What is meant by the ‘yield curve’? How has it been affected by the latest release from the Monetary Policy Committee?
- Why has the value of the pound been affected following the decision to keep interest rates at 0.5%?
- How has the sterling exchange rate changed and how might this affect UK exports?
- What are the main concerns expressed by those who think that there is a danger from keeping interest rates low for too long?
- Why is the outlook of the global economy so important for the direction of interest rate changes?
Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.
It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:
seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.
So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.
The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’
Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
- What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
- Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
- Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
- Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
- What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
- What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
- Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.
The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.
Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
- Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
- What is the yield curve and what does it show?
- How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
- Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
- If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
- In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.