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  • Writer's pictureRob Winkler

U.S. Economy's Recession Outlook: Delayed But Still Likely

Despite the robust economic data and a delayed response to Federal Reserve (Fed) rate hikes, the prospect of a recession in the United States remains a concern for experts and investors. In this article, we examine the key factors and indicators that suggest a potential economic downturn on the horizon.

Key Takeaways

Currently, the resilience of economic data and the lagging effects of higher interest rates are acting as temporary barriers to a recession. However, experts anticipate a recession emerging in the next six months as the consequences of the Fed's tightening policies gradually take hold. To prepare for this possibility, investors are advised to shift towards higher-quality and more defensive investments as a safeguard against economic uncertainties.

Crying Wolf or Real Danger Signs?

Amid ongoing debates about an impending economic slowdown, there are several positive signs that seemingly contradict these concerns:

  • Recent rallies in stocks and other riskier assets suggest investor confidence.

  • The labor market remains robust, boasting strong employment figures.

  • The nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was revised upward in the first quarter, with second-quarter GDP forecasts exceeding 2%.

  • Consumer confidence is on the rise, partly due to moderating inflation rates.

Despite these promising metrics, experts caution that the delayed impact of Fed rate hikes can obscure the true state of the economy, creating uncertainty about whether these positive indicators are a true reflection of the economic health.

Rate-Hike Transmission Lags and Economic Indicators

One significant factor contributing to the delayed recession outlook is the sluggish response to the rapid rate hikes initiated by the Federal Reserve. Economic research and policymakers concur that it can take anywhere from nine to 24 months for the full effects of each rate hike to materialize in the economy.

Key indicators that suggest the late stages of the current economic cycle include:

  • The housing market, typically the first sector to decline in a slowing economy, peaked in 2021.

  • Except for one marginally expansionary month in April 2023, the manufacturing sector has been contracting since late 2022.

  • Corporate profits and consumer spending have both slowed.

  • The U.S. Treasury yield curve has been inverted since July 2022, a historic precursor to previous U.S. recessions.

Given this backdrop, experts suggest investors consider assets that have historically performed relatively well during economic downturns and offer protection against inflation above target levels.

Downturn Expected by Year-End

In the eyes of experts, the combination of the rapid pace of Fed tightening, which saw a 5.25 percentage point increase over 16 months, and stricter lending standards, makes a recession the most likely economic outcome. Furthermore, even though monthly annual inflation rates have slowed, the cumulative increase in inflation since January 2021 stands at approximately 16%, weighing on corporate profits and consumer spending, which accounts for around 70% of the GDP.

In this context, the probability of a recession is considered significantly higher than the likelihood of stagflation or a "Goldilocks" scenario. Experts anticipate inflation remaining at 3% or higher, and GDP contracting, which could eventually prompt rate cuts by the Fed.

Recession: Potential Investment Implications

Should a recession materialize, experts recommend the following investment strategies:

Fixed Income

  • Increasing duration exposure, as diversified strategies with longer durations may offer performance advantages when rates decline.

  • Staying in high credit quality, with a focus on high-quality investment-grade credit to provide diversification and potentially more attractive yields. However, careful credit selection is essential to avoid weaker, excessively recession-sensitive issuers.

  • Maintaining inflation protection, as inflation strategies continue to appear attractive due to expectations for inflation to remain above average.

Equities and Real Assets

  • Emphasizing quality stocks, focusing on companies with higher profitability and healthy balance sheets in defensive sectors such as utilities, health care, and consumer staples. Additionally, dividend-paying stocks are considered attractive for their income stability.

  • Exploring sustainable growth by investing in companies with dependable, secular earnings growth that typically outperform during economic downturns. Economically sensitive value sectors may lag as growth expectations decrease.

  • Reducing emphasis on style distinctions, as historical data suggests no clear winner between growth and value investing during recessions. This means diversification can play a critical role.

  • Exercising caution in the commodities market, considering that commodities usually lose their appeal as consumer and industrial demand wanes. However, gold might continue to perform well amid falling interest rates and increased economic and market uncertainty.

  • Limiting exposure to real estate stocks, as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) often underperform during poor economic conditions in both residential and commercial real estate markets.

What Does Stagflation Mean for Investors?

Experts believe that stagflation would result in higher 10-year Treasury yields and increased volatility as slow growth collides with high inflation. Additionally, they anticipate the two-year Treasury yield rising as the Fed continues to tighten financial conditions, while credit spreads, especially in the high-yield sector, may widen due to weaker economic growth.

Stagflation: Potential Investment Implications

If stagflation takes hold, investors are advised to consider the following strategies:

Fixed Income

  • Maintaining inflation protection by investing in inflation-protection securities, particularly those with short durations, as they are considered attractive as rates rise and inflation remains elevated.

  • Focusing on quality credits, particularly short-duration strategies, which may offer benefits if yields outweigh the effects of spread widening. Emphasis on credit quality is essential due to pressures on corporate fundamentals from inflation, rising rates, and muted growth.

Equities and Real Assets

  • Focusing on traditional value sectors, with particular emphasis on the energy and basic materials sectors, which have historically benefited from higher commodity prices. Utilities are also suggested for their dependable cash flows and dividends during economic slowdowns, despite higher inflation and interest rates.

  • Favoring quality stocks that are less leveraged, have higher profit margins, and offer reliable cash flows from operations. These stocks are expected to hold up better in a challenging environment.

  • Evaluating commodities carefully, as they have historically delivered high average returns during periods of elevated and rising inflation. However, smart management is required due to geopolitical factors and the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

  • Limiting exposure to real estate, particularly REITs, as they may underperform their long-term averages when mortgage rates rise and the housing market slows.

What Does a Goldilocks Scenario Mean for Investors?

A "Goldilocks" scenario, characterized by quickly moderating inflation and a neutral monetary policy by the Fed, would likely result in reduced Treasury market volatility, with declining Treasury yields and mortgage rates, tightened credit spreads, and economic growth recovery.

Goldilocks: Potential Investment Implications

If a "Goldilocks" scenario unfolds, investors are advised to consider the following strategies:

Fixed Income

  • Evaluating higher-risk bonds, with a focus on credit-sensitive securities, especially high-yield bonds and bank loans, which have historically performed well during economic expansions.

  • Focusing on nimble duration management, as modest growth, lower inflation, and a Fed pivot may require active duration management to adapt to changing market conditions.

  • Maintaining inflation protection, as inflation strategies can continue to play a vital role in portfolios if inflation settles above the Fed's 2% target.

Equities and Real Assets

  • Exploring growth stocks, particularly in pro-cyclical, growth-oriented sectors, which historically outperform in lower-rate, strong-demand environments. This trend has been particularly evident in sectors like information technology and communication services.

  • Assessing cyclical sectors, which tend to benefit from increased economic activity. Banks and consumer discretionary and industrial stocks, for instance, may perform well as economic activity increases, even if fundamentals are momentarily overlooked in favor of market beta.

  • Limiting exposure to certain commodities, with industrial metals and other pro-cyclical commodities potentially outperforming during periods of increased economic activity. However, softer inflation may lead to lower prices for energy and food.

  • Allocating to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which are expected to outperform as the housing market recovers. Additionally, lower interest rates tend to increase the appeal of REIT yields.

Bottom Line: Considering Inflation's Impact on Portfolio Allocations

Even if the economy slides into a recession, experts believe that elevated inflation will remain a significant challenge. As a result, they emphasize that inflation-protection strategies should be core components in fixed-income allocations, even if inflation falls from its current elevated levels. In other areas, experts suggest that investors should consider tactical allocations to interest rate and credit sensitivity to navigate the uncertain growth outlook. Remaining flexible may be the best approach among credit-sensitive securities, offering opportunities to capture yield advantages across various economic scenarios.

Furthermore, the focus on quality in equities and real assets is seen as crucial over the next few months. Quality companies with strong balance sheets, higher profitability, and stable cash flows are expected to offer attractive performance potential in economic downturns. Overall, as the economy faces uncertainties and potential shifts, a strategic and diversified approach to investment is advisable to navigate these complex financial waters.

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