Category Archives: Business Cycles

3/7/19: Record Recovery: Duration and Perceptions

While last month the ongoing 'recovery' has clocked the longest duration of all recoveries in the U.S. history (see chart 1 below), there is a continued and sustained perception of this recovery as being somehow weak.

And, in fairness, based on real GDP growth during the modern business cycles (next chart), current expansion is hardly impressive:

However, public perceptions should really be more closely following personal disposal income dynamics than the aggregate economic output growth. So here is a chart plotting evolution of the real disposable income per capita through business cycles:

By disposable income metrics, here is what matters:

  1. The Great Recession was horrific in terms of duration and depth of declines in personal disposable income.
  2. The recovery has been extremely volatile over the first 7 years.
  3. It took 22 quarters for personal disposable income to recover to the levels seen in the third quarter of the recovery.
So what matters to the public perception of the recovery in the current cycle is the long-lasting memory of the collapse, laced with the negative perceptions lingering from the early years of the recovery.

To confirm this, look at the average rate of recovery in the real disposable income per quarter of the recovery cycle. The next two charts plot this metric, relative to the (a) full business cycle - from the start of the recession to the end of the recovery (next chart) and (b) recovery cycle alone - from the trough of the recession to the end of the recovery (second chart below):

So looking at the trough-to-peak part of the cycle (the expansion part of the cycle) alone implies we are experiencing the best recovery on modern record. But looking at the start-of-recession-to-end-of-recovery cycle, the current recovery period has been less than spectacular, ranking fourth in strength overall.

Which is, of course, to say that our negative perceptions of the recovery are anchored to our experience of the crisis. We are, after all, behavioral animals, rather than rational agents.

1/8/18: Household Debt and the Cycle

So far, lack of huge uplift in household debt in the U.S. has been one positive in the current business cycle. Until, that is, one looks at the underlying figures in relevant comparative. Here is the chart from FactSet on the topic:

What does this tell us? A lot:

  1. Nominal levels of household debt are up above the pre-crisis peak. 
  2. Leverage levels (debt to household income ratio) is at 17 years low.
  3. Mortgage debt is increasing, and is approaching its pre-crisis peak: mortgage debt stood at $10.1 trillion in 1Q 2018, just 5.7% below the 2008 peak. 
  4. Consumer credit has been growing steadily throughout the 'recovery' period, averaging annual growth of 5.2% since 2010, bringing total consumer debt to an all-time high of nearly $14 trillion in early 2018. 
  5. While leverage has stabilized at around 95%, down from the 124% at the pre-crisis peak, current leverage ratio is still well-above the 58% average for 1946-1999 period.
  6. The above conditions are set against the environment of rising cost of debt carry (end of QE and rising interest rates). In simple math terms, 1% hike in interest rates will require (using 95% leverage ratio and 25-30% upper marginal tax brackets) an uplift of 1.19-1.24% in pre-tax income for an average family to sustain existent debt carry costs. 
The notion that the U.S. households are financially non-vulnerable to the cyclical changes in debt costs, employment and asset markets conditions is a stretch, even though the current levels of risks in leverage ratios are not exactly screaming a massive blow-out. Just as the U.S. Government has low levels of slack in the system to deal with any forthcoming shocks, the U.S. households have little cushion on assets side and on income / savings balances to absorb any significant changes in the economy.

As we say in risk management, the system is tightly coupled and highly complex. Which is a prescription for a disaster. 

14/7/18: The Second Longest Recovery

One chart never ceased to amaze me - the one that shows just how unimpressive the current 'second longest in modern history' recovery (and only 9 months shy of it being the 'first longest') has been, and just how sticky the adverse shocks impacts can be in modern crises that can be best described by the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) environment:

The fact that the current recovery cycle has been weak is only one part of the story, however, that would be less worrying if not for the second part. Namely, that almost every successive recovery cycle in the past three decades has been weaker than the previous one.

Here is a handy summary of the recovery cycles in the last four recessions based on annual data, for real GDP and real GDP PPP-adjusted: