Hussman's Recession Call: Still Invalidated

Last week I wrote that both ECRI’s initial recession call and also John Hussman’s recession warning criteria had been invalidated. Oversimplifying somewhat, Hussman’s 4 criteria were: (1) credit spreads wider than 6 months before; (2) the S&P 500 lower than 6 months before; (3) the ISM manufacturing index under 54 simultaneously with less than 1.3% YoY employment growth; and (4) a yield curve of less than 2.5%. As of last Friday, not only was the S&P not lower than it was 6 months before, it was actually at a 6 month high! Further, not only was the ISM manufacturing index above 54, but employment growth was also more than 1.3% higher YoY. I’ve also pointed out that the yield curve element of Hussman’s formula was in place for 20 years running during the 20th century, simultaneous with the strongest GDP growth in the last 100 years.

In closing, I said that Hussman should at least explain why he believed his recession call was still valid. Put another way, what is the “off” switch for the above criteria, if it is different from the “on” switch?

This week Hussman spent a large part of his weekly market comment defending that call. His defence rests, as I understand it, on two grounds: (1) one or more criteria was violated in 2008 and the recession warning, obviously, was still valid; and (2) there is no “off” switch for the criteria, but rather, once “on,” a cornucopia of bearish evidence may be invoked, and entirely different criteria, e.g., a positive ECRI growth WLI, signals the end of recession.

Before I go further, I should emphasise that Hussman defended his metrics on their merits, with no ad hominem attack on me. For my part, although I still disagree with him, he did make some valid points, and none of what follows should be taken as a personal attack on him. In fact, I think his shorthand indicator briefly summarized above is very helpful.

That being said, idea of an indicator that switches “on” but never “off” strikes me as not intellectually rigorous. Beyond that, if the ECRI indexes are the determinant of an indicator, I should just go directly by them and cut out Hussman as the middleman. That in the interim a cornucopia of evidence may be selected (cherry-picked?) in support of a conclusion strikes me as inherently subjective and unreliable.

Since I wasn’t satisfied with Hussman’s explanation, I decided to examine the 3 non-yield curve criteria on my own to determine what should cause them to switch from “on” to “off.” (With long term yields under 2.5%, that element is likely to remain in effect for a long time to come). The results indicate that if a recession were to happen now, it would still be unprecedented under Hussman’s own criteria.

As an initial note, Hussman’s claim that the S&P 500 criteria was violated in May 2008 is not correct. The closest it came was 1426.63 on May 19, 2008, only 7 points below its level of 1433.27 on November 19, 2007. That being said, my research indicates that it is not uncommon at all for that index to be higher than 6 months previously either shortly before or after the onset of a recession. Similarly, it is not uncommon for credit spreads to meander higher or lower than 6 months before during all but the most serious economic turns.

What is uncommon — in fact, almost non-existent — is for either the ISM manufacturing index criteria or the employment criteria to be violated. Generally speaking, once the ISM index falls below 54 in advance of a recession, it continues to fall under 50 and only rises back above 54 after the recession is over. Similarly, once job growth falls below 1.3% in advance of a recession, it typically only rises back above that level well after the recession has passed.

In fact, each has occurred only once, and not simultaneously. In particular, in all cases but one, the YoY employment percentage change was falling on a 6 month smoothed basis in advance of every recession since the second world war. The sole exception was in 1953. Similarly, the only time the ISM index fell below 54 within 1 year of the onset of recession but rebounded back above it was in 1959 for two months. These are shown in the graph below (in which the ISM index is normed so that a reading of 54 on the index = 0, and payroll YoY% growth is also normed so that 1.3% YoY growth = 0):

To show you the full record, here is the same graph for the 1970s and early 1980s recessions:

And here is the same graph from 1989 to the present:

Note that in every other case, not only did the ISM index continue to fall, but the YoY% change in employment was also declining going into a recession. There is simply no precedent for a recession occurring while both the YoY% change of employment is improving, and simultaneously the ISM index rebounding above 54. Put another way, whether a recession happens or not, under the set of criteria Hussman himself has established, a precedent will be set. Only in retrospect will we know the answer.

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