Update about the economy: slowing, vulnerable, in a strange space.

Summary: Today we take another look at the US economy. The indicators paint a clear picture of an economy slowing, vulnerable to recession, in a strange space. A recession could become ugly; don’t expect a return to normality.  Overall it’s a boring picture, hence its widespread misrepresentation in the investment media as either wonderful or bleak (they give us the news we want).   {1st of 2 posts today.}



  1. The big trends
  2. My favorite indicator, a window onto the world
  3. Waiting for the return to normalcy
  4. For More Information

(1)  The Big Trends

The bears say that we’re in a recession. But then they so often say that, at least since the crash. Let’s look at the data. The picture shows bad news — for those earning their bread by telling you lurid stories about the economy. Let’s look at a typical graph: the percent change year-over-year in non-farm jobs, not seasonally adjusted (not needed, since we’re using YoY numbers).  It shows boring slow growth. The opposite of clickbait.

FRED: non-farm jobs YoY, NSA

The number of jobs provides too narrow a window on the labor market to tell us much. For a wider view we can turn to the Fed’s Labor Market Conditions Index, combining 19 indicators in a complex model. An exciting reading of -2, until you realize that zero is the average.  It shows slowing — as many indicators do now, but the data doesn’t justify the Zero Hedge headlines saying that we’re in recession.

Labor Market Conditions Index

For a broader perspective on the US economy see the Big Four Economic Indicators graph at Advisor Perspective, showing the trend in the 4 key inputs to GDP. See the GDPnow page at the Atlanta Fed for the trend in the current quarter’s GDP — the economy reduced to a single number. This was an obscure indicator when I first mentioned it; now every twitch generates a thousand tweets. Mostly bogus tweets.

GDPnow forecast evolution

This looks ugly! The smart computer forecasts Q2 GDP at 0.7% growth while the stupid economists expect 3% (these are seasonally adjusted annualized rates). But the Fed tells us that results “do not give compelling evidence that the model is more accurate than professional forecasters.” So the most interesting aspect of this graph is the gap between the forecasts of economists and the model. Last quarter had a similar gap, with the model’s forecast proving spot on. This means something, although I don’t know what.

(2)  My favorite indicator, a window onto the world

Due to the lag in the flow of economic data we know only where we were several months ago. We have scattered clues about where we are now from the few high frequency indicators. For a better view we can turn to leading indicators, as they take data about the past and forecast where we’re headed. My favorite leading indicator is the OECD Composite Leading Indicator, which shows growth in the industrial nations as above or below average (the 100 level).

OECD Composite Leading Indicator, May 2015

OECD Composite Leading Indicator for USA, May 2015

The striking aspect of this graph is the stability of growth since the crash, the result of active and so far successful economic stimulus programs. Faster growth would be good, but stability provides the foundation for future growth.

On the other hand, the economy is slowing. That seldom suffices to create a recession without some sort of shock pushing it into recession. But we’re vulnerable. Rising interest rates, increased oil prices, a recession in China — any of these or other shocks could do it. The effects of a recession under these circumstances would be difficult to predict, and could be ugly.

(3)  Waiting for the return to normalcy

Since the crash economic data has been anomalies. Many economic metrics are far outside their ranges in the post-WWII era, such as interest rates, Fed assets, and M2 velocity. Others have hit record lows, such as the Baltic Dry Freight Index of shipping rates on bulk cargo (e.g., coal, iron ore), which in February was the lowest since records began in 1985, and the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (SCFI). Others behave oddly for a recovery, such as the Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate since 2000 falling to lose half of its 1964-2000 rise.

Oddities abound, for which economists have many but unconvincing explanations.

What indicators will show when we’ve returned to Kansas?  My favorite indicator for that purpose is M2  velocity, the ratio of nominal GDP to M2 money stock. It shows the speed of money coursing through the economy. It peaked in late 1997, near the end of Greenspan boom. Since late 2013 it has been falling at ~2%/year (quite rapidly by pre-crash standards), now at record lows. Eventually it will stabilize and trace out a new range — showing that the current phase has ended.

M2 Velocity, Q1 2015

When will conditions return to normal? I do not believe they will. The world economy has broken away from the post-WWII regime into a transitional period before we begin a new normal. I do not believe we can do more than guess at what lies ahead.

(4)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about economics, about markets, about Bitcoin, the deep web, & the big conflicts of the 21st C, and especially these about our slowing economy:

  1. How close are we to the next recession?
  2. Updating the recession watch; & what might the government do to fight a slowdown?
  3. Economic status report: good news plus chaff from doomsters.
  4. Economics gets interesting as the economy darkens while stocks bubble.
  5. Today’s forecast for the US economy & stock market: cooling, perhaps with storms.
  6. What does our surprisingly slow economy in Q1 tell us about the future?

8 thoughts on “Update about the economy: slowing, vulnerable, in a strange space.”

  1. Very good information and analysis, FM. I am currently trying, without much success, to understand the implications of the current shifts in the bond markets. It is possible that they don’t mean anything and it is possible that they mean a lot.

    Like you, I am watching our current behavior with a certain amount of awe. We truly live in amazing times, I only hope they do not end badly.

    1. Pluto,

      I do not believe anything is happening with the US bond market. Wall Street analysts worship noise because there is too little news and action to justify the lavishly paid hordes who write about markets — a response to investors’ desire for answers to unanswerable questions.

      Eventually rates will rise. Perhaps later this year (but not if the economy continues slowing). That might be interesting, if done quickly or during a weak economy. Or not, if done slowly in a strong economy. And the global fx markets will play a big role.

    2. I basically agree with you, FM. I was referring to the world bond markets, in particular the rise of the 10 year German bond from -0.1 to 0.7% in a very short time, but you are probably right that it is more noise than a serious change in direction. But in these days of wonder, who can say?

      1. Pluto,

        We can answer you question more definitively. A fast increase of 70 bps in a bond market is not an unusual event — especially in a relatively small market (German’s public debt is ~2 trillion euro, including all levels).

        This is one of the points of this post. People read the media for entertainment, even the financial press (this was less so 30 years ago, when there was far less interest in markets). People want excitement, so the media gives it to them. Every day is exceptional, doom always at the door.

        In other words, most of exciting news in the financial press is bogus — a combination of exaggeration, misrepresentation, noise, and insufficient context.

    3. Just going by the news, the interest rate blip was normal Greece crazy. This has been running like clockwork for years now. If there’s a real story, it’s Greece and their endless punishment by austerity. Amazingly, the Euro zone seems even more screwed up than the USA or Japan, which is an achievement of some kind.

      1. Cathryn.

        Yes, that is how the financial media describe the situation. I disagree on all points. It’s not remotely accurate.

        • Greece is a dot to the Eurozone.
        • It’s being punished “pour l’encouragement des autres” (to encourage the others).
        • The EZ is not screwed up, nor is the US.
        • There is no realistic basis say the EZ is worse off than the somewhat dire situation of Japan.
  2. Here: “Janet Tavakoli: Sequel to Wall Street Horror Show Is Coming“, 12 May 2015 — “Tavakoli talks to ThinkAdvisor about three banker suicides, why another global meltdown is coming and how JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon holds onto power.”

    Is Janet Tavakoli opining on the meaning behind three prominent banker suicides. Boy, talk about voting with your feet. Death was by hanging, a method that sends a message of shame to one’s tormentors. I do think all is not well in the banking halls of power.

    1. Peter,

      “Tavakoli debunks the post-financial crisis “nothing-to-see-here” myth and links the shocking suicides of three high-level financiers to the pressures of Wall Street’s “low moral tone” that corrupted the global financial landscape, she says, and led them to despair.”

      Clusters of unusual events are the norm, not the exception. Sophisticated analysis and comprehensive databases are necessary to sort the statistical wheat from the chaff. Pointing to 3 banker suicides as significant is a wonderful example of innumeracy.

      Also, anyone who believes that Wall Street has a “low moral tone” compared to its past has a remarkable level of historical ignorance. It’s always been corrupt, but its become cleaner in many ways since I fitst stepped onto Wall Street in 1978.

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