How fears about recession could become a self-fulling prophecy

Moses ten commandmentsMovieClips/YouTubeMoses fulfilling the prophecy from the Burning Bush on the march to the Promised Land.

The “r-word” — recession — has creeped back into the economic conversation in the US.

And though weakness in manufacturing persists and the stock market has been rocky, the argument against a recession in the US is simple: the US consumer is fine.

But what if they aren’t?

According to Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, there is a worry that a faltering stock market and a slower labour market could damage the psyche of consumers.

And without consumer spending rolling — which accounts for around two-thirds of GDP — the economy faces the risk of contraction.

“There is concern that fear of a recession could become self-fulfilling,” wrote Brown in a note to clients.

“That is, consumers (fearful of losing their jobs) may save more and spend less, and businesses may be reluctant to commit to capital expenditures — and the economy slows.”

This isn’t such a far-fetched notion. For one thing, the slide in stocks and the slowing pace of labour market additions could make American consumers worried.

While underlying data was solid, the headline number in Friday’s January jobs report was weaker than in previous months. And a weakening labour market amid declining stock markets could weigh on consumers’ expectations.

Brown notes that the current situation sub-index of the Conference Board Consumer Confidence survey has slid recently, which is usually bad news for the economy.

“When consumers rate current conditions below the year-ago reading, there’s a greater chance of a recession,” he wrote. “The year-on-year difference was still positive in January, but it has been approaching zero.”

Possibly reflecting weakness in outlook and job security, the personal savings rate has also increased meaning that Americans are putting more of their income into the bank account, not into the economy. And while savings aren’t necessarily a bad thing for individuals, two-thirds of US GDP comes from consumer spending, so if that slows the lacklustre economic growth may stall with it.

The second half of Brown’s “self-fulfilling recession,” however, is already happening to a degree.

“Currently, there are signs that businesses have curtailed capital expenditures,” wrote Brown.

Capital spending has already been anemic for some time now, and corporate earnings have dropped off making it even less likely that companies could make up for any slip in consumer spending.

From there the nightmare of lower consumer spending, lower sales, lower earnings, and lower capex could bring the US to recession.

But there are clear signs this won’t happen as wages are increasing, consumer spending is still solid, and low gas prices are putting more money in consumers’ wallets.

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