The debate about whether the world’s largest economy is in a recession, or headed for a recession, or sufficiently robust to avoid a recession, just got even more complicated. Friday’s US employment report showed total payrolls at a record high, with companies adding twice as many workers as economists forecast. “Job gains in July were a monster,” notes Jason Schenker of Prestige Economics.
Google Trends may offer a better real-time guide to whether the economy is contracting than any official judgment from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the group that documents business cycles. Lags in data, as well as revisions, delay its pronouncements. For Gary Shilling, there’s a sufficiently high correlation between waning consumer confidence and appearances of the word “recession” in internet searches to settle the argument.
Rising energy prices, increased mortgage costs, excess retail inventories and a bursting housing market bubble all point to a self-reinforcing trend. “Consumers are worried about a recession and retrenching, thereby increasing its likelihood,” Gary writes. The Federal Reserve will prioritize curbing consumer prices over keeping the economy afloat. “After being behind the curve as inflation surged, the central bank badly wants to restore its credibility,” Gary argues.
One central bank has unequivocally admitted that the outlook is bleak. On Thursday, the Bank of England raised its benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point, its biggest increase in 27 years, taking the rate to 1.75%. As well as forecasting inflation will peak at more than 13% this year, compared with its 2% target, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street predicted that the UK is set for two long years without any growth.
John Authers cannot recall policy makers at any large industrialized nation ever being so negative about the prospects for their own economy. Predicting a double-digit surge in consumer prices accompanied by a severe recession — and then raising borrowing costs anyway — displays breathtaking candor by the BOE. “Many of us spend our time demanding more in the way of brutal honesty from central banks,” John writes. “This is what it feels like when we get it.”
Dan Moss is less convinced that central bankers have the collective stomach to “tolerate a downturn, if not outright engineer one.” He points to this week’s statement from the Reserve Bank of Australia, which echoed the Bank of England in raising rates by half a point while predicting weaker growth and faster inflation, but also emphasized the importance of “keeping the economy on an even keel.”
Dan suggests keeping a close eye on New Zealand’s central bank, which was early in tightening policy and is now seeing unemployment edge higher at the same time as house prices drop and business and consumer confidence declines. “A certain amount of prudence will naturally enter the rate dialogue as more central banks move to neutral,” Dan argues. “The race to outdo each other with ever more sizeable hikes will soon subside.”