Despite Positive First Quarter, Odds of 2008 Recession Are Still Above 50%

The Commerce Department this morning revised upward its estimate of first quarter growth in real GDP to 0.9% (precisely in line with the expectations of economic forecasters).

As a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the NBER, I am asked frequently if the country is about to enter a recession, or if we have already done so. I cannot speak for the Committee, and I am not a professional forecaster. But I can give my views, for what they are worth.

It is hard to say that we entered a recession in the early part of the year, without a single negative growth quarter, let alone two of them. Even so, three minor qualifications to that 0.9% remain:
1) The number will be revised again, and could move in either direction.
2) A bit of the measured growth consisted of an increased rate of inventory investment, which was almost certainly not desired by firms and is likely to reverse later in the year.
3) As Martin Feldstein has pointed out, the QI growth number is defined as the change for the quarter as a whole relative to QIV of 2007; within QI, the information currently available suggests that GDP fell from January to February to March.

The reason why many suspected a QI turning point in the first place is employment, which is virtually as important an indicator to the NBER BCDC as is GDP. Jobs have been lost each month since January. Total hours worked is my personal favorite, because in addition to employment it captures the length of the workweek, which firms tend to cut before they lay off workers. This indicator too has been falling.

And of course there are the longer run indicators that have been very worrisome for almost a year: depressed household balance sheets, mortgage defaults, high oil prices, low consumer confidence, etc.

The economy is a four-engine airplane flying at stall speed, skimming along the top of the waves without yet going down. Real gross domestic purchases increased only 0.1 percent in the first quarter — almost as flat as you can get. But net exports provided an important source of demand for US products, and are likely to remain a positive engine of growth in the future. The same is true of the fiscal policy engine, as consumers receive and spend their tax cuts in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. On the other wing, the investment engine has been knocked out; inventory investment is likely to fall and residential construction will remain negative for sometime. The big question mark is the consumption engine. Is the long-spending American household taking a hard look at its diminished net worth and taking steps to raise its saving rate above the very low levels of recent years? If so, a recession will ensue.

We are already clearly in a “growth recession.” All in all, I put the odds of an outright recession sometime this year at greater than 50%. That number is meant to add together:
(1) the odds that it will turn out that we have already passed the turning point and
(2) the odds that the sharp recent expansions in monetary and fiscal policy will succeed in postponing the recession, but only until later in the year.
Come the fall, if demand starts to slow, I can’t see either the Fed delivering a second big dose of interest rate cuts (as they were able to in the 2001 recession, when the dollar was strong and inflation under control), nor the government delivering a second big dose of tax cuts (as they could in the 2001 recession, when the budget outlook was strong and debt under control).