Cycling into Recession? Understanding the Growth Rate Cycle (w/ Lakshman Achuthan)


ED HARRISON I’m Ed Harrison for Real Vision. I’m here with Lakshman Achuthan, who is the
cofounder of ECRI, which is a principal company in terms of business cycle research. Thank you for joining us. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Thank you for having me. ED HARRISON So I guess– you know, the first
thing I want to talk about– and we were talking about this off camera before. This is a bit of a rehash because you’ve talked
about this before. But we haven’t talked about it– LAKSHMAN
ACHUTHAN: Mm-hmm. ED HARRISON What do you guys do that’s different
than what other people do in terms of understanding when a business cycle is at its peak and when
it’s at its bottom? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Great question. Thank you. Basically, most macro forecasters are probably
using some sort of model. They might be putting in all of the usual
suspects and figuring out the correlations and then extrapolating and making a forecast
for growth or for inflation or jobs or whatnot and saying, OK, here’s where we are in the
cycle. Or on average, the cycle has lasted x years. So we’re early or late in the cycle, whatever. Now, what we do is, number one, we just don’t
use models to forecast turning points because, actually, if you look at the research– and
there’s actually quite a bit of research on this– systematically, the largest errors
in forecasting– kind of like blue chip forecasting or something like that– will occur around
turning points in growth and inflation and jobs, turning points and pretty much anything
simple because the models like to extrapolate. And they miss the turn. And they only see it in the view mirror. And that’s why you get these surprises. And I think the received wisdom, almost as
a result, is that recessions are caused by– it can’t be us. It must be something else. They’re caused by shocks. You know, it wasn’t our fault. And now, we’re going to put whatever the shock
was into the model. And then we’ll be good, right? And you’ve seen that go on for a century,
practically. And there keep being these surprised kind
of turning points. What we do is nothing particularly new. However, the state of the art is much more
advanced than people probably realize. And that is we use a leading indicator approach. My mentor, Geoffrey Moore, was the father
of leading indicators, created the first index for the United States some 60, 70 years ago. His mentor, Wesley Mitchell, actually defined
what a cycle was back in– 100 years ago or something. And these leading indicators are designed
to turn ahead of the target. So for example, let’s say, you’re trying to
predict a turning point in production. Well, in theory, new orders could be a leading
indicator of production. And it makes sense. It doesn’t– you don’t have to be a rocket
scientist to figure that out. But it’s a good solid basis for that idea. And then, empirically, you take a look if
that’s true. And maybe that’s one of your inputs into a
leading indicator, in this case, of some production series or production target. And we go on and on, trying to find the key
drivers. And look at them– leading indicators in one
group, coincident data in another group, the target, which people actually get confused
about, lagging indicators to confirm that what you thought happened actually happened. And you can also see some long leading indicators. They have very long leads. But they might be kind of erratic. So you have to have a sequence of indicators
in order to know– to get a good feel of where you are. Now, that’s very different than a model. And everything I just described is state of
the art 60, 70 years ago. ED HARRISON Let me ask you– so let’s see,
if I get this straight. So basically, what you can do is you can say,
look, here are these long leading indicators. We see things that are happening there. Let’s see if they’re confirmed by the short
leading indicators. And then, once they are confirmed, then we
can start to look at coincident and then we can start to make a call. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Right, so what happens–
exactly. And so what happens is your degree of confidence
starts to rise. And also another way of thinking about it
is, if you have a turn in a long leader, when the shorter leaders start turn, up or down–
it could be up, too– you have a prior. So you’re sitting there. A lot of people, if they’re wise to it, might
be looking at that. Probably not a lot– probably a few are looking
at it and wondering, is it noise or not? Again, the big issue here is signal to noise. And if you have a prior, you can start to
receive something, maybe more of a signal. And what we find, after all of this, it’s
not that the ideas aren’t there. Markets tend to be short leading indicators. Most market prices tend to be short leading
indicators. They are very good indicators. I mean, the sources of data is also very important
in this era of big data, right? You have hard data, say, the government counts
something up. You have market data prices, super important,
because there are signals in there that we all know. And then you have survey data, which Geoffrey
Moore was a big proponent of in the 70s. Now we start to have some history from it. But the idea that there is some information
in the soft surveys is good, too. All of that is fallible. Just like anything in your portfolio could
blow up, any of these could be wrong. So you need to diversify your risk, look at
all the key drivers of the cycle, which takes some experience, and then put them together
in a way where you’re trying to avoid as many biases as you can, one way or the other, so
that you can get as clean a signal out of it as you can. Now, the leading indicators, such as they
were 60, 70 years ago, is one indicator for the overall economy. It’s way too simplistic. There’s manufacturing. There services. There’s construction. There’s trade. There’s all these different things going on. There’s many cycles. And sometimes you can have a two speed economy,
one kind of going up and the other going down. And on average, you model. So these kind of nuances are very, very important. The other big thing, which I think people
still struggle with today– and I’ve been doing this now 20 years, professionally, and
maybe a little more. And it’s hard to believe, but people still
struggle with the notion that there’s a separate inflation cycle. It’s related to growth. But the turns in the inflation cycle can vary. There can be long and variable lags between
the turns in the inflation cycle and growth. And even the same with cycles and jobs. And so a model– if we go back to the beginning
of the discussion, a model is going to want to refer all three of those to each other,
pretty explicitly. We don’t make those assumptions. Yeah, they’re related. We know they are, cyclically. But there can be periods of inflation free
of growth. And we nailed it in the late 90s, OK? That can happen. It broke a lot of models, all of them, pretty
much. But it was easy to describe. You can have a jobless recovery. There’s no rules against that, OK? And so the indicators also showed that. And so we have whatever knowledge and equity
that we have. But we let the indicators, now about hundred
of them globally, tell us a story. Is there an upturn? Is there a downturn? And very often, at the turning points, those–
because of everything I’ve just described– they can deviate. They probably will deviate from the consensus
if it’s driven by model. And so the consensus will be going this way
or that way. Indicators will turn this way or that way. There’ll be a gap. And that has to be resolved one way or the
other. And if it’s a cyclical turn, it’s probably
going to resolve towards the direction that ECRI was looking. ED HARRISON Interesting, I mean, obviously,
the reason that we’re asking the question now– I was telling you before– this is part
of what we would call recession watch– LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah. ED HARRISON –this particular– because, over
the past, I would say year, maybe six months, people have been saying, is there something
going on in the markets? Is there something going on in the economy
that says that what could be– what looks to be like a slow in the economy could actually
turn into a recession? So we’re thinking recession watch. And so we’re talking to you to figure out,
what do the numbers look like? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, I would agree 100%. And to let– to set the table here, basically,
you have recessions and recoveries, expansions and contractions, and in growth. And then there’s another cycle, which is,
perhaps, more important to the markets, which are what we call growth rate cycles, accelerations
and decelerations in growth. And so now, we’re in our fourth growth rate
cycle downturn. We predicted it back in 2018 that we’re having
a slowdown in growth. Now, any time– ED HARRISON When were the
other ones in this particular cycle? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, 2010-11, downturn
2012-13, downturn in 2015-16, downturn. And then after– in between those, you had
cyclical upturns. So the last presidential election, we had
a growth cycle upturn happening, following– That actually– it’s interesting because–
I mean, now I’m getting in the weeds. But it’s interesting because, earlier that
summer, the summer of 2016, we had this pretty massive reflation in the leading indicators
of inflation, the future inflation gauges. They just took off like a rocket. That’s a directional call, not a magnitude
call. But if you remember back then, this is– you
know, it’s like ancient history now, 2016. But inflation expectations were near their
record low. The ten year was pretty darn low at that point. And we had inflation– the future inflation
gauge go up not only in the US but also in Europe and in Asia. And so you had this kind of global reflation. And that was a little weird. That actually happened before the growth rate
cycle upturn started to take hold. And you know the story after that. And so we have a nice global upturn in growth,
’16 into ’17 into early ’18. It was actually the strongest we were able
to determine by the end of ’16. It was going to be the strongest upturn since
the recovery out of the Great Recession. OK, so that’s saying something. But then it rolled over. And we’ve had this global downturn. ED HARRISON And when things like that happen,
when they roll over– just to go back to your process– you know, people are like, why did
it roll over? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Why. ED HARRISON And what’s your response to those
kinds of questions? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Well, it gets into the
nature of a free market oriented economy. It has ebbs and flows. It’s not– A free market, you’re going to
have bouts of fear and greed, run ups and downs in different components of production,
interest rates, demand, debt. These are all big drivers of the cycle. At some point, prices get cheap enough and
demand is pent up enough that, even though everything looks totally nasty, someone buy
something. ED HARRISON OK. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: That’s a trough. And you get a turn. And the same thing happens at the peak. When everything is very euphoric, on the margin,
someone can say, you know, I’ve overextended. I’m getting a little spooked. Or I’m not profitable anymore. And all of those– those are all aspects of
drivers of the economy. And then you have things like the intervention
by central banks, so– ED HARRISON So basically, the answer that you’re saying is that you’re
agnostic as to what the drivers are. Things just go up, and they go down. And your job is to show that that’s what’s
going to happen. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Well, if we’ve done our
job right– and I think we have. We’re always trying to improve, obviously. But what I’m describing has stood the test
of time. We have some indicators, going back to the
early 1900s, like 1905 or ’06 or ’07, right in there and space. So we have these indicators for over 22 countries,
including ones that are structurally, radically different than the United States. But directionally, they’re nailing the calls. And the reason is because we’re capturing
the key drivers, long leaders, short leaders, in these sequences, in these many cycles,
for these economies. And we are reporting the story. And sometimes– No, we’re reporting the directional
call that they’re making. And then we have to figure out, what’s the
story? I don’t always know the story. You know, I’m not clairvoyant. I don’t necessarily know, oh my gosh, it absolutely
was mucking around in the housing debt. I just saw the turn. Then we have to figure out what it is. Where inflation-free growth, back in the late
’90s, we didn’t know exactly what it was. We made the call. And then we saw it was these waves of imported
disinflation from abroad and asynchronous growth around the world at that time, which
is actually relevant now. Well, coming full circle to right now because
we– back in the summer, we had a European growth rate cycle upturn call. ED HARRISON And that’s when you spoke to Raoul
the last time, right? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, yeah. Sometime in the summer. ED HARRISON And you’ve been proved right since
then. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, and it’s not that
the stories– we understand all the stories in Europe and the difficulties. And maybe, as we’re trying to figure out what
is the story– like you’re saying, what’s the story this time? It may be as simple as they didn’t put their
foot on the brake, OK? The ECB never really slowed things down in
sharp contrast to the Fed. And remember, long and variable lags– the
markets may react immediately to or very quickly to hints of what the Fed’s doing or what the
ECB is doing or whatever. But the economy itself, those have– long
and variable lags have an impact on the economy, on the economic growth. And there’s vestes juanes stuff and probably
got Macron to spend some more money and some other things happened. And they went through some of their auto corrections,
emissions corrections, that they had to go through. All that’s kind of run its course. Plus, they were– they’ve been in a downturn
for a while, so some pent up stuff. All of those things happen. And we have less bad first happens. And then you start to get I think what we’ll
be on a cyclical basis, at least a sustained upturn. Now, a cyclical basis is a few quarters. I’m not saying until the end of time. They can turn down again. What’s interesting is that it’s also happening
in Asia ex Japan. Japan is its own story where there’s a recession
risk. But Asia ex Japan, including China industrial
sector, is showing the cyclical upturn parts. And all of that together has given us what
looks like a more constructive outlook on global industrial growth, which is not a country
specific call. It’s just industrial activity globally. ED HARRISON So basically, what you’re saying
is you could see, three or four months ago, that Asia ex Japan, Europe, there was a bottoming. And taken together, global manufacturing,
there was a bottom. And now, we’re seeing that this upturn is
occurring. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: I would say in that sequence. I’d say first Europe then Asia ex Japan and
then how that was giving the foundation for global industrial growth bottoming. And we have leading indicators targeted at
each of those cycles, all of those cycles. And they were all feeding us and showing us
to be looking at that. And one thing that’s very important– and
I just reference, again, the late 90s, asynchronous recessions– is that it doesn’t– there’s
going to be, and there already has been, this conflating of those upturns with an upturn
in the US. And then, if you have a stronger than expected
jobs report, oh yes, definitely right. And you start to get super convinced of that. And we see that happening. ED HARRISON So talk to me about that, especially
in the context of the jobs report, because that was a pretty nice jobs report. How would you describe it– because we’re
telling one story, these guys over here this. This is what’s going on. We haven’t hit what’s going on the US. So what is going on in the US in the context
of this super nice jobs report that we got? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Well, I think we have a
slowdown, the slowdown continues. So we predicted a growth rate cycle slowdown
back in 2018. That continues. It’s continued through the end of this year,
and it’ll continue into the early part of next year. And that’ll actually include a weaker performance
out of the jobs market, despite Friday’s number. ED HARRISON So jobs– the number of jobs that
are being created, non-farm payrolls in various sectors, what are they looking like? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Well, we did a chart on
kind of splitting it out, the cyclical aspect and the non-cyclical aspect. So things like education and health care–
not that discretionary. And as a result if it’s not discretionary,
it tends to be less cyclical. But everything that’s discretionary, that,
if times are tight, I can put it off a little bit, then that’s very cyclical stuff. And that’s actually most– the rest of the
economy. So you could see it was a good looking jobs
report. Education and health care, I think they’re
around 38 or something month high in the growth rates. Everything else is around October’s 99 month
low in jobs growth. And so that’s consistent with what our leading
indicators of the employment cycle were saying, that they’re saying there’s still weakness
there. And that’s also consistent with the unemployment
rate. Now, I know the headline unemployment rate
went to its record low at 3.5%. And that’s driven by education and health
care and overall statistics there on how the unemployment rate is calculated. But if you go into these key sectors of the
economy and you do the seasonal adjustment, which the Labor Department does not– the
BLS doesn’t do for you, then what you’ll see is that construction sector unemployment is
up almost 2%. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? ED HARRISON Yeah. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: It’s supposed to be this
banging economy, right? And if anything, certainly, I would expect
the construction guys to be super, duper busy. But their unemployment rate has actually been
on the rise noticeably. And if you switch over to manufacturing, it’s
almost a 1 percentage point rise in the unemployment rate. And so those are that more cyclical sectors
of the economy. And we’re seeing– ED HARRISON And over what
time frame is that happening? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Several months. I think it’s over half– it’s like four or
five months. It’s– I think what really happened– those
are the cyclically sensitive areas. They really jerked down the unemployment rates
there on the Powell pivot because everybody was like, wow, it’s cheap. Let’s go like crazy. And then they probably went too far. And now everybody’s backing off. And you see that in leading indicators, that–
we actually have to talk about the Powell pivot. That’s a whole– ED HARRISON Yes, we do. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: –huge thing. ED HARRISON Yeah, definitely. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: But you see that in the
indicators and the patterns when you just said in recent months where they, basically,
call this a slowdown. And then they lift a little bit into in ’19
but nowhere near new highs or anything. It’s kind of like down and up like this. And so you like, where’s it going? And that pop is all this risk on. I mean, the markets are important. Market prices are important. They are drivers of the economy, too. And the market related kind of inputs into
indicators have supported them. But then when you look at consumption, so
the story is, OK, I’ll give in. Manufacturing is slowing. ED HARRISON But consumption is holding up. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: But consumption is holding
us up. And if you look at that, you could look at
like real consumption, real retail sales, or real PCE, personal consumption expenditures. And they’re down from last year. And they’re higher– ED HARRISON Their growth
rate is down. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Their growth rate is down
from last year. And there’s a real recessionary freak out
back in December in consumption. And then it snaps back. But the overall trend this is down. And I think there’s even something to be said
about what’s going on in that data because most people, most of the population, is kind
of tapped out. I mean, they’re living check to check. Then you get to middle to upper class, and
they have a– or middle class. And they have home equity and homeownership. And there, it’s good that home prices stabilized. They were decelerating. But they kind of went flat. They’re not taking off. But they’re not a negative. That’s good. And then the wealthy, certainly– people who
have– let’s say, people who have a lot of exposure to the markets equities and stuff
are feeling pretty good. And it’s really super telling when you see
that jerk down in consumption at the end of last year because it reveals how much of it
is dependent on the more affluent spending. And so if, for any reason, the more affluent
pullback, there’s not a lot of support for spending growth. And that’s just– that is kind of– we’re
still decelerating on that score. Now, going over to the Fed– ED HARRISON Yes
because I wanted to– when you talked about December, immediately, what came to mind was–
and we were talking about this offline before, you were saying to me that there was– the
numbers that you looked at in 2018 were telling you that, actually, you know what? This growth rate cycle that you think is going
to continue? It’s rolling over. These cuts that– these hikes that you’re
making, going from three hikes to four hikes in 2018, actually, maybe it should be two
hikes. It seems like the Fed wasn’t reading the tea
leaves correctly. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, and I hear this every
once in a while. I’ll turn on the TV and listen. And I’ll hear, ah, yeah, it’s kind of like
the 90s, mid-90s. That’s what we’re talking about, mid-cycle
adjustment. I’m like, you guys don’t even know– you have
no clue what happened in the mid-90s, OK? And I do actually because I was there. I was a little kid. I cut my teeth at the desk of Geoffrey Moore. And Alan Greenspan was chairman. And he was looking at inflation cycles, which
they’re not doing. And so the mid-cycle adjustment in the mid-90s
was all about the future inflation gauge and when it was running up and when it was running
down. And you see preemptive hikes. And you see pre-emptive cuts. That’s what happened there. It wasn’t– that was exactly what happened
there. And I can get into chapter and verse on that. But it’ll take awhile. So I will assert that. And then we go to 2018. And we have an inflation cycle downturn and
a growth rate cycle downturn. Now, without being someone with a long history
of central banking theory, you don’t want to tighten into a cyclical downturn in growth
and inflation. ED HARRISON Yes. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Exactly. That’s all we were saying. Please don’t do that. And they did that in September. ED HARRISON And again in December. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: And everybody, just all
the bond kings and queens, were yapping about, you better be prepared for 5% 10 year yields. You know, how’d that work out? ED HARRISON It didn’t. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: And no, and I think a lot
of people got led down the path on that one. And if you’re looking at cycle indicators,
you didn’t have to go there. But we did. So in September, there was a hike. In December, there was that hike. And then they gave it all up. And to a degree, Yellen tried that it back
in– LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: –cycle, too, but just not quite as much. Now, that’s the real setup. And there’s no inflation cycle upturn. And there’s no growth rate cycle upturn now. And so I know the Fed’s going to meet this
week. And they’re going to– they’re expected to
come out kind of, we’re not concerned about inflation. We’re not concerned about anything. Everything’s good to go. And what we find– with not a lot of samples,
I have to say. But looking at the past five episodes of the
Fed tightening after the future inflation gauge turned down, what you see is, if they
do that, if they tighten after the future inflation gauge turns down, you get a recession. I’m not going to predict a recession based
on that. But that’s an interesting thing to be aware
of. There’s a long and variable lags. ED HARRISON So you know, let me just back
up one second because, just before, you mentioned something about the Greenspan and inflation
and how he was looking at inflation and how Powell and the Powell Fed, they weren’t–
and actually, they even jacked up rates too much in 2018. Can you be a little bit more explicit about
what you were thinking on that? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Sure, Greenspan was Geoffrey
Moore’s student. Number one, so there’s a little teacher-student
relationship there. And Dr. Moore was all about cycles and inflation
cycles. And Greenspan– ED HARRISON And that was the
good Greenspan. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, this was Greenspan,
circa ’90s, OK? And we have this– it’s the one memorable
moment of a pre-emptive inflate– a Fed hike and cut. It’s something cyclical. You want to actually move ahead of the cycle
to smooth the cycle, not after the cycle. Then you’re pro cyclical. If the cycles turn and you move, you’re actually
going to make the cycle bigger. So in ’94, the Fed surprised the bond market
with a rate hike. And a couple of funds blew up. It was a big deal. But it was based on the future inflation gauge
running up. And he says, I’m doing it preemptively. And then, in ’95, the future inflation gauge
is coming down. And he preemptively cut. And we had, in retrospect, a pretty long darn
good expansion and all those things. Now, Powell, more recently, say, last year,
is saying, hey, I remember the 90s. I want to kind of– that felt good. I want to do that, too. I’m going to do this– all these things. And we were like, yeah, it didn’t happen the
way you think. It was really about leading indicators of
inflation, the future inflation gauge. And now we can go in the minutes and see that. McTeer and others on the board were talking
about, I want to see the forward looking data. ED HARRISON That’s what they were saying in
the 90s. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: That’s what they were saying
in the 90s. It was very different. They weren’t looking– they were moving away
from the models and willing to look at cycle indicators and I think because of this relationship
between Greenspan and Moore. But now the story is quite different. And you see the mistake that was made where
they hiked in September of ’18. They hiked in December of ’18, even though
all those forward looking indicators that Greenspan had been watching were moving clearly
to the downside. And so what I think happened in the 90s is
extremely different than what the Fed thinks happened in the 90s. And I think it’s– even at its very base,
it’s just the idea that there are cycles in inflation that are different than cycles in
growth. And just that basic concept is very difficult
for someone, who’s running a big model where they want to equate growth– not equate, but
relate growth to inflation. And so here, for what it’s worth, the Fed
is saying, hey, we’re going to let it run hot. But they’re still in the model framework because
there’s something about it running hot. It’s in a cyclical downturn. ED HARRISON And so, basically, you’re saying
on some level– I mean, some people would say that, yeah, you’re saying what Donald
Trump is saying. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Well, yeah, it was funny. Back in October, fall of ’18, we had made
our inflation cycle downturn call. Jamie Dimon had made his call that you should
be prepared for a rate, the 10 year at 5%. So we were on opposite ends. And Barrons stepped in and said, hey, why,
Trump might be right about the Fed. Now, we’re not political. We’re decidedly nonpartisan. But we’re going to call the cycle direction
the way it is, whatever it is. It doesn’t– and then the rest will work itself
out. And the inflation cycle was clearly in a three
piece downturn. There was no argument from a cycle perspective
on that at all. And we see what’s happened with rates and
with the economy and with the Fed and all their explanations for what they’ve done. ED HARRISON Would you be willing to make a
call with regard to where the Fed could go– or should go going forward? Because a lot of people were saying, they’re
going to do a dovish hold coming up. But it seems, if they over tighten, then,
perhaps, they’re still too tight. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, I was just looking
at the charts. You know, that’s kind of late 80s into 90s
talk where, hey, we cut a lot. And we go on hold for a while. It’s not about going on hold. What it’s really about is– in these five
episodes that we’ve looked at, which isn’t really enough. It’s a small sample size. But what it appears to be is you have to cut
right when the inflation cycle indicators of have signaled the downturn. Pausing, holding, all these things are kind
of irrelevant. It’s how– it’s a stitch in time saves nine. It’s really the timing of this stuff, not
I’m going to just sit back and take the middle road. And so I– look, on balance, they should probably
be easier right now because the cycle is still moving to the downside. ED HARRISON Now we’re thinking 2020. When I spoke to you on the phone a few days
ago, the first thing I asked you was, it doesn’t seem like you were talking about a recession. But does that mean that we’re out of the woods
for 2020? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: So anytime there’s a cycle
slowdown, growth rate cycle slowdown, you’ve got to be on recession watch. So I’m glad we’re having this discussion. And we’re there. And this is appropriate. Now, for an outright recession forecast, we
would need to see pronounced pervasive and persistent declines in the levels of our indicators. We don’t have that at the moment. So it’s not imminent, OK? Is it off the table? Is the recession off the table because jobs
came in strong on Friday? Absolutely not. None of these leading indicators have turned
up in a way that’s pointing to a reacceleration in growth. Business, investment, all these things are
still moving to the downside. That story is not over. But when we look at the lag of– tightening
after the cycle has turned down, which is what occurred, that has real impact. And if we look at– for various reasons, I’m
kind of looking at late 80s early into 90s, there’s some similarities I’m seeing there
in our data. The leading employment indicator turned down. Our indicator turned down in a way that’s
kind of similar to what’s happening now. And the Fed, at that point– it was in Greenspan’s
very early years as chairman– tightened into a slowdown. And a year– I think it’s 13 months later. So after we had our inflation cycle downturn
call, the Fed kept hiking back because they thought, after the crash, that everything
was good right. Everybody was afraid, I think, in late ’89. And then once we got through late ’89, they
thought, OK, we’re good to go. And that actually was when the recession risk–
got up. And so it was a 13 month lag then. So here, let’s say, the mistake kind of was
around last fall. We’re coming up on that. It’s not a way to predict. I don’t– we don’t lag our data and do stuff
like that. But in 2020, sure. I think a recession is not off the table at
all in 2020. And so there is no green light on that score. We do have green lights, as I mentioned, in
Europe, Asia ex Japan, maybe even global industrial growth getting its legs. But that does not mean the US can’t still
cycle down between now and whenever it catches something on those cycles. In the 90s, we saw asynchronous growth. ED HARRISON That was exactly what I was going
to ask you about, is this concept that, if they’re turning it up, we’re going to turn
up or, at least, with a lag. But that’s not necessarily the case. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Not necessarily the case. So often, I mean, many decades, we do see
some synchronicity. And certainly, on the manufacturing side,
you can understand why. But for much of the 90s, we saw periods where,
say, the US would go into recession in the beginning and the end of the decade. And then Europe and Japan would take turns
in the middle. And you’d have this asynchronous growth where
we were not all synchronized. And so the idea that Europe can turn up while
the US still slows and, maybe, faces some recession risk is fine. It’s perfectly acceptable to the way cycles
work. There’s no rules against that. And so we would say, before we start to call
for a US upturn, we would want to see it in the indicators. The one sector in the US where there is some
cycle– some upturn showing up is in financial services sector. And a come down in rates will help you do
that. So that’s kind of understandable. ED HARRISON So when we were talking earlier
and we were talking about long leading, short leading, coincident, and then, eventually,
lagging, where are we in that process right now in terms of those indicators just for
the US? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Deceleration there. We see a few upticks and long leaders and
maybe, even in a few like financial services, leaders, shorter leaders. But in order for it to be an upturn, not my
hopes or anything like that, but rather just an objective upturn, it has to be pronounced
in those leading indicators. It has to persist. And it has to be pervasive. It has to be the majority of the drivers contributing
to the rise. And that’s not satisfied. As of today, it’s not satisfied. And so there’s no upturn. Until you see what we call the three P’s to
the upside, we just don’t have that. ED HARRISON Now, we’ve not talked about–
you were talking about Japan being a different story. But one of the big things that we haven’t
talked about so far is China. Where is equity on China? And just more generally, I think I was asking
you this before, why is it that I don’t hear equity’s name when we’re talking about Europe
and Asia? I usually think of equity in the US. But what are you guys doing in those economies? LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: I think it’s just we haven’t
done a sufficient PR push on what we’re actually doing there. Look, we’ve been– Dr. Moore– this is probably
the longest running economic experiment that I’m aware of, since the early 80s, developing
international indicators that are comparable to the ones that we were running in the United
States, internationally. And so I think many– like, everybody talks
about leading indicators now. Everybody’s got their leading indicator. Or you can go to the OECD or the conference
board. And the issue there is that all of those indicators,
pretty much– I mean, I’m sure there’s someone who’s not doing this. But all the ones that you might think about
are made by model builders. And so what’s a model builder going to do? They’re going to optimize their index or extrapolate
something or estimate something and probably run into some trend adjustment issues in the
data. There’s all kinds of hairy statistical stuff
around cycles. And you get what you get, which are these
indicators that look good historically but, in real time, fail. And our real time track record is exemplary
on the directional call of growth or inflation on that score. And when we developed the first ever leading
index for China– this has to probably be 10, 15 years ago. OK? It’s a really long time. And remember, Dr. Moore, before the late ’70s,
dated every single US recession. So all those shaded areas, he selected those. So we use the same methodology that the NBER
used to use to date cycles. And we’ve done it internationally. So you have a really good objective chronology
base that is used by all the major central banks, for example, when they’re doing cycle
analysis to look globally. And the indicators, our leading indicators,
are also comparable. And so now for China, our Chinese leading
indicators, eyes wide open on all data issues, are comparable to the US. And actually, our approach, in a way, is much
more forgiving to some of the concerns you might have about the quality of the data. And our Chinese leading industrial production
index, boom, has moved to the upside. It’s got a clean three Ps– it’s got a clean
three Ps upturn. So the markets tend to focus on PMIs. Those are short leading indicators. I think, more recently, they’re a little clearer
to the upside. But in the last few months, they’re kind of
going in different ways. And yeah, signal to noise– what am I looking
at? And in the context of the earlier move in
the Chinese leading industrial production index, we were looking for signal and kind
of knew that. And that actually is continuing. So it doesn’t mean the overall Chinese economy
is off to the races. There are some other issues in the broader
economy indicators. No recession there, and the industrial component
will get a little bit of traction here. ED HARRISON So the– I guess my final analysis
there would be that the US is probably the laggard of all the countries that we’ve mentioned
except for Japan. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Yeah, and just another–
just for the storytelling part of it because you have to have that. Human beings love story part, right? So why did we– why are we lagging a little
bit? Another component there, if you remember back
in ’17, we had those big hurricanes. So we had the rebuild, which was a nice jerk
to the upside. And then we got the tax cuts, another one
off. Both of those are non-cyclical events, kind
of jerking us higher when everybody else started to roll over. Another reason why we’re lagging. OK, now, in Japan, they’re about to enter–
I think they’re at risk and maybe about to enter their fifth recession since the GFC. So GFC– then they had three other recessions,
full blown recession. And now, they’re here they are on the brink
of a fresh one. The data’s all mucked up because they had
their sales tax increase in October. So it draws a little bit of consumption forward. So some of the coincident indicator data goes
this way, and then it will give up. And the leading indicators there remain quite
bad. A little bit of more storytelling here– this
is the third time they’re making this policy mistake of the sales tax increase. ED HARRISON Yeah, definitely. Each time. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: And so they did it in ’97,
which we were screaming, there’s a recession. How could you be– don’t do this now. And I remember, back at the time, there’s
a large mutual fund that can’t go short. And they’re like, whoa. They’re a client of ours. And they’re like, whoa, are you serious? All our people on the ground are saying everything
is hunky dory. You know, it’s all good to go. We kick the tires. And we say here’s the recession, leading indicators,
blah, blah, blah, all those sequences, pronounced pervasive persistence, window of vulnerability. If there’s a shock, it’s a recession. This is a government created shock of a tax
increase. And they said, well, huh, we can’t go short. JGBs are at 2 and 3/4. ED HARRISON We can go long. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: That all seemed paltry
then. Remember, this is ’97. ED HARRISON Right, right, yeah. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: That seemed like really
low. And they’re like, ah, OK. And they loaded up. Awesome trade. Awesome trade, the gift that keeps on giving. So then they did it again in 2014. We had a recession call. They jacked sales taxes. There was another recession right there. And now, they’re doing it this time, the third
time around. Although they just announced some attempt
at pushing out fiscal. And that seems to be the name of the game
now. And I don’t want to discount that 100% on
the US. Let’s come back to the US for a second. Whatever the Fed is doing is supportive, whatever
you want to call it. It’s not QE or something. But it is supportive of the markets. ED HARRISON Right, not QE. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Whatever you call it. They say it’s not QE. Don’t look here. There’s nothing to see. But it’s expanding the balance sheet. So that’s supportive. You also have a pretty impressive deficit
spending. And the dealer banks are caught in the middle. And all that stuff’s happening. But suffice it to say, there’s some debt spending. I remember– it had to be a year or more ago–
we were doing a presentation. And we reached back to something we had talked
about earlier, which is what we call the Red Queen effect, if you go back to Lewis Carroll
and Through the Looking Glass. And the Red Queen says, you have to run twice
as fast to get anywhere. And it reminds me of the debt growth. And I think it was last year– the statistics
are a little dated. I might have mentioned this to Raoul a few
months– over the summer. But last year, the global debt growth was
10 times greater than the global GDP growth. That’s what it’s taking to get what we have. So to maintain that– I mean, you can do the
math. How can you maintain that kind of debt growth? Or if you want to get anywhere faster, can
you grow more debt growth? That’s kind of the world we’re in here among
which we’re having these cycles. And so here, on the one hand, you– then you
have these– you to have some sort of cognitive dissonance. You have the best economy ever and the unemployment
rate low and all of this and massive support being given to get that kind of growth. Something doesn’t add up. ED HARRISON So I think that’s a perfect juncture
to ask, and wrapping it up, 2020– what’s your outlook for 2020? Not in terms of this is going to happen or
that’s going to happen, but these are the things that we at ECRI are looking at. And these are the things that you should be
looking at. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Well, I would not– I think
the number one warning is don’t conflate the cycle in the US with what’s happening in Europe
or Asia ex Japan or even global industrial growth. Those can turn up while we still decelerate. That is entirely possible. And it’s kind of interesting because– you
know, I don’t know that this is going to happend but I’m going to watch it– is on inflation. Of course, you know, the Fed will come out
and say that, we’re not worry. Don’t worry about it. Even if inflation comes, we’ll let it run
hot. Blah, blah, blah. They’re going to– that’s what you have coming
now. And you know, maybe. But I’d love to watch the future inflation
gauge. That thing has served me well. Just to draw a mental picture, it rose for
three months, went down for a month, then ticked up. It’s not a three piece upturn. But it’s not plunging anymore. And so we have to keep an eye on that. Those could be your surprises next year. I think recession risk is still on the table. It’s not a green light in the United States. I’d be more optimistic in terms of growth
in Europe and Asia ex Japan and global industrial growth, which is industrial commodity inflation. ED HARRISON Excellent. And I think that– I know that you’re a macro
guy, so you’re not going to make calls on that. But for the people who are watching, obviously,
those are some things to be thinking about in terms of how they want to position themselves
in the markets. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: I would say absolutely. And look, it is entirely possible that our
indicators light up to the upside for the US. And we have the fourth growth rate cycle trough
since the last recession. Entirely possible. And I’m as interested to find out as anybody
if that is going to be the case. I’m just– I’m not waving a green flag just
because of Friday’s jobs report. I still see some weakness there. ED HARRISON Lakshman Achuthan, Thank you very
much. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN: Thank you. It is my pleasure.

7 thoughts on “Cycling into Recession? Understanding the Growth Rate Cycle (w/ Lakshman Achuthan)

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  2. By the way, this guy was calling for a double dip recession back in like 2010 or around there. You gotta take what he says with a grain of salt.

  3. Another boring “a recession is not imminent but we can’t rule it out” interview. Change the channel Real Vision. Would be more interesting to hear from individual industry experts rather than an umpteenth inflation-speculation snoozer.

  4. So this happened…Right! Then that happened… right! And you know the other thing happened… riiight!! And we don’t have models… right. We have a collection of indicators that we don’t call models RIIIIGHT! And if you close your eyes you’ll see Jeff Goldblum….oh yeah… right. So basically your saying I’m as smart as you are… well I wouldn’t go that far…right…RIIIIIGHT.

  5. Ed, please critique yourself on your interviewing techniques, hearing the word "RIGHT" every few seconds is very distracting. I do enjoy your interviews Ed.

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