Why a U.S. Recession May Still Be Looming

October 2, 2023
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Stephanie Bedard-Chateauneuf
Growing concerns about a potential U.S. recession emerge as recent economic trends challenge prevailing optimism, with factors like inflation, employment, and government risks potentially pushing the nation into economic turmoil.

Amidst widespread optimism of a soft landing, there are growing concerns about the potential for a U.S. recession. Recent economic trends have challenged the prevailing sentiment, raising uncomfortable questions about the nation's economic trajectory.

Throughout the summer, inflation showed signs of abating, employment remained robust, and consumer spending remained strong. These factors, combined with the Federal Reserve's confidence, led many to believe that the U.S., as the world's largest economy, would successfully sidestep a recession.

While a last-minute agreement has temporarily averted a government shutdown, other imminent risks persist. A significant auto industry strike, the resumption of student loan repayments, and the looming possibility of another government shutdown post the temporary spending deal expiration could collectively erode a percentage point from GDP growth in the fourth quarter.

These potential shocks, when compounded with other potent economic forces, such as the depletion of pandemic-related savings, surging interest rates, and elevated oil prices, create a precarious situation. The combined impact of these factors could potentially push the U.S. into a recession as early as this year.

The bottom line is that both historical patterns and data suggest that consensus views have grown overly complacent, mirroring the sentiment preceding each U.S. recession over the past four decades.

Why is it so challenging for economists to predict recessions? Part of the difficulty lies in the nature of economic forecasting. It often assumes that future economic events will be an extension of recent trends—a linear progression. However, recessions are inherently nonlinear events, and human cognition tends to struggle with their anticipation.

A crucial takeaway from this is that the risks are skewed towards rising unemployment rates.

Optimists are banking on a soft landing point to a year of strong stock performance, signs of stabilization in manufacturing, and a resurging housing market. However, these sectors have the shortest lag time between interest rate hikes and their real-world consequences.

For elements of the economy that are vital for gauging the likelihood of a recession, particularly the labor market, lags are considerably longer, typically spanning 18 to 24 months.

This implies that the full impact of the Federal Reserve's extensive rate hikes, totaling 525 basis points since early 2022, may not be felt until late this year or early 2024. When that moment arrives, it could trigger downturns in the stock market and the housing sector. It's still premature to assert that the economy has safely navigated this impending storm.