"Sentiment is palpably horrible," says one analyst as more experts turn increasingly bearish on the ... [+] AFP via Getty Images
A growing rash of economists are warning the odds of a recession have increased amid a historic inversion of the yield curve—a telltale sign of a looming economic slowdown after the Federal Reserve on Wednesday raised rates to the highest level since the Great Recession and signaled its policy would be more aggressive than previously anticipated.
Yields on the 10-year Treasury surged more than 10 basis points to nab a new 11 year-high of 3.829% on Friday, while the 2-year Treasury hit a 15-year record of 4.266%—deepening the yield curve inversion to some 50 basis points, the widest gap in more than 30 years.
Since July the yield curve has been inverted—when short-term yields fall below longer-term returns—in a sign investors are more bearish about the economy’s long-term prospects, and the inversion only deepened after the Fed on Wednesday raised rates by 75 basis points and suggested it may institute another unusually large hike again in November.
In a note to clients, analyst Tom Essaye of the Sevens Report explained the steepening inversion “makes sense” because a more aggressive Fed, and higher rates that make borrowing more expensive, will temper demand and stunt economic growth in hopes of reducing inflation, but he also warned the magnitude of the inversion has become “very concerning.”
A Federal Reserve study in 2018 found every recession in the past 60 years has been preceded by a yield curve inversion, and Essaye says the widening gap between 2-year and 10-year Treasurys is “screaming that a serious economic contraction is coming,” adding “everyone should be preparing” for a material economic slowdown in the coming months and quarters.
In a Friday note, Bank of America economists said they expect the economy will fall into a recession in the first half of next year, with real GDP falling 1% after adding 5% last year, and unemployment rising to 5.6%—potentially wiping out more than a year of job gains.
Fed officials doubled down on their most aggressive economic tightening campaign in three decades on Wednesday, raising interest rates by three-fourths of a percentage point for the third time in a row and pushing borrowing costs to 3.25%—the highest level since 2008. Though they had originally projected the federal funds rate would only climb to 3.4% this year, they now project it will climb to 4.4%, suggesting another 75 basis point hike could be on the table in November.
“With this new alignment between the Fed and markets, the questions now are when and how bad the recession will hit,” says Mace McCain, the chief investment officer of Frost Investment Advisors. Stocks plunged deeper into bear market territory after the Fed’s hawkish message, with major indexes eclipsing yearly lows on Friday. The S&P 500 is down 23% this year, and economists at Goldman project it will sink another 3% by December and could take more than a year to recover losses.
The tech-heavy Nasdaq has plummeted 32% since January, the Dow nearly 20%. “Looking out over the next one to two months, we don’t have much conviction at all on equities,” says Adam Crisafulli, founder of Vital Knowledge Media. “Sentiment is palpably horrible.” Existing home sales fell for the seventh straight month in August as rising interest rates continued to sideline potential home buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors.
In a statement, the association’s chief economist Lawrence Yun called the housing sector “most sensitive to” the Fed’s interest rate hikes and said the softness in home sales reflects this year’s escalating mortgage rates, which hit a 15-year high of nearly 6.3% this week—driving up the cost of monthly payments on new mortgages by more than 55%, an average of hundreds of dollars each month.
Despite pockets of the economy already reeling from the Fed’s hawkish policy, the job market remains firmly strong, effectively justifying the aggressive action. Initial jobless claims were little changed this week and continued claims actually edged lower. However, many experts say it’s inevitable that the labor market will soon start to cool. “It’s possible that the unemployment rate could gently glide higher and wages cool without an outright recession—but it’s never happened before,” says Bill Adams, chief economist for Comerica Bank.
Though it slowed for a second-month straight, inflation clocked in at a worse-than-expected 8.3% in August—far worse than the Fed’s long-standing target of 2%. Bank of America economists project inflation won’t return to that level until the end of 2024.
I’m a senior reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business
Critics by Peter Hannam
Adam Tooze has a cult following among economists and historians alike. The famed English economic historian, once hailed by New York Magazine as “impeccably credentialed, improbably charming”, is in Australia after speaking at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas.
The decision by the US Federal Reserve to raise its key interest rate by another 75 basis points this week, and its plans for further increases, have raised the spectre of a global economic slowdown. Overnight, the Bank of England lifted its key rate by 0.5%, matching Indonesia and the Philippines, while the Swiss National Bank and South Africa opted for a 0.75 percentage point rise.
Tooze, a history professor at New York’s Columbia University and a frequent contributor to the Guardian, has detailed the gathering economic headwinds and has analysed for Guardian Australia the key areas of the current financial turmoil.
‘Extremely severe’ recession risk
The chances of a global recession were now “extremely severe”, as central banks in many parts of the world raise interest rates to curb inflation. “It’s the single most dramatic simultaneous tightening of monetary policy ever,” Tooze said. The winding back of Covid support packages by governments as the pandemic tide recedes also meant fiscal brakes were being tapped.
“US fiscal policy right now is massively contractionary,” Tooze said. “It’s a 4.5% of GDP negative drag.”
Textbook moment of ‘failed technocracy’
Tooze predicted the current policies of central banks and governments would be marked in future textbooks as a “classic moment of failed technocracy”. The US Fed Reserve lifted its cash rate target range by 75bp to 3% to 3.25% on Wednesday, US time. It also indicated it expected increases of as much as another 125bp this year even as Fed chairman Jerome Powell warned of a possible recession.
Tooze said other central banks will be under pressure to follow. Australia’s Reserve Bank governor, Philip Lowe, said last week the bank would probably lift its cash rate 25bp or 50bp on 4 October, making it a record six increases in as many months. The lives of 100s of millions of people and their employment prospects would be scarred by a recession, Tooze said: “This will mark those people’s lives for the rest of their lives.”
Private economists forecast Australian property price falls of as much as 20%, the steepest decline since the 1980s as rates rise. Tooze said Australia and Canada had two of the “most overheated” property markets in the world, and he predicted “huge effects” from higher borrowing costs.
One source of support for the market might also be less forthcoming in the future. The surge in both Chinese students and property buying in Australia, US and elsewhere, had partly been a “capital flight story”, he says. Buying a flat to provide accommodation while studying was one way to get money out of China.
Signs have lately been mounting of a renewed effort by Chinese to move money abroad ahead of a major Chinese Communist party meeting in Beijing next month that will formally extend the leadership of President Xi Jinping. To counter that capital flight, authorities are making it harder for people “beyond certain networks” to access passports, Tooze said. “It’s really quite difficult now for the Chinese to discreetly exit.”
The RBA deputy governor, Michele Bullock, on Wednesday described the global economy as being “on a bit of a knife-edge”. One reason was the fragile state of China’s economy. Its Covid-zero policy disrupted supply chains and a plunging property market had “still not worked itself out”, she said. Demand for Australian iron ore, in particular, hinged on the success of government efforts to support real estate.
The Chinese property bubble is not just any property bubble – it’s the largest single phase of accumulation of wealth in economic history,” Tooze said, noting the number of private property owners had jumped from near zero to 300 million in a few decades. “They poured more concrete in three years [in the early 2010s] than the United States in all of the 20th century,” he said. The Chinese government may yet stabilise the market.
“The amazing thing is that big money in the west is taking a huge gamble on the capacity of an authoritarian regime unfettered by the rule of law to pull off the largest single exercise in macro-prudential, macro-financial stabilisation the world has ever seen,” Tooze said. Assuming they can do that, BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue – and a large part of the Australian economy – “are all fine”.
One cause for optimism
Tooze said the “extraordinary progress” in cutting the cost of solar and wind energy was a “real case for optimism”, at least as far as action to limit global heating was concerned. “The disappointment is we could be even further down those cost curves” if the US and Europe and elsewhere had matched China’s investment. Improving battery technology would be “fundamental” to advancing decarbonisation efforts because of the intermittency of renewables.
He cited data from the International Energy Agency on total public funded energy research – totalling $US23bn ($A35bn) in 2021 – as proof we can do more. “If we were serious about the energy transition,” he said, “you’d think we would be collectively spending more than what Americans spend [each year] just on treats and food for their dogs and cats”.
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