“Something bad happened in November”……
...I have spotted the excellent Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) doing the rounds reiterating his call that the US economy is already in a recession. He seems to be getting a bit of stick recently, but as I am fully aware, bearers of bad news are usually derided. I think he is doing an excellent job of explaining his stance patiently and clearly in the face of some very hostile interviewers. His recent 7 December analysis on the ECRI website of why a recession is likely to have started around four months ago is well worth an uncomfortable read - link (see also the related video link).
Certainly if the US has already slipped into recession, this would help explain why our preferred measure of whole economy profits declined, albeit marginally, in Q3. We have always monitored pre-tax, domestic, non-financial, whole economy profits particularly closely because this measure of the underlying profitability of the business sector is probably the best leading indicator of domestic business investment, and that has also been weak recently.
Many have attributed the weakness in investment to uncertainty about the fiscal cliff. But if underlying profits are under pressure, then so too will be investment. So although much of the S&P eps downgrading by analysts is being attributed to severe weakness abroad, what the latest whole economy profits data show is that the domestic business situation is also weak. The ECRI recession call should be listened to more closely.
Certainly the latest National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) survey in November was entirely consistent with an economy already firmly back in outright recession. The headline optimism series plunged 5.6 points in November to 87.5, which the NFIB itself says is one of the lowest optimism readings in the survey's long 30 year history.
“Something bad happened in November…and it wasn’t merely Hurricane Sandy”, the NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg is quoted as saying - see chart below and link. Even scarier than the decline in the headline measure was the 37% slump to an all-time low in those firms who believe economic conditions will improve over the next six months. That 37% drop is twice the previous record 18% decline, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman’s collapse (see chart below). For those who might immediately retort that this is a sentiment indicator that should be used as a contrary indicator - you are wrong. It is a good leading or at worst coincident indicator. I would say this datum is more than consistent with the recession that Lakshman Achuthan of the ECRI has been warning of, wouldn't you?