Business·Analysis

5 indicators we're reaching the recession tipping point: Don Pittis

If we are teetering on the edge of recession maybe it is groupthink, not inverted yield curves, that will tip us over the edge.

Signals to watch to decide if the world has begun the slide into the next recession

This week the International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva said, 'The global economy is now in a synchronized slowdown,' contributing to the groupthink that could tip the economy into recession. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

This week hints of a global recession came from Montreal. Speaking at McGill University, the new boss of the World Bank, David Malpass, warned the global economy is heading to fresh lows.

"In June, the World Bank Group forecast that the global economy in 2019 would grow at 2.6 per cent, the slowest pace in three years," said Malpass. "We now expect growth to be even weaker than that."

If you've heard that a recession is six months or more where a national economy shrinks, those numbers don't sound too ominous. That's until you realize that for years the International Monetary Fund considered global growth of less than three per cent equal to a worldwide recession.

In a one-two punch, the new head of the IMF also issued a warning. 

"The global economy is now in a synchronized slowdown," said Kristalina Georgieva, who took over from Christine Lagarde on Oct. 1.

But it may not be the experts' predictions that matter per se, so much as the fact that they, and so many other people, are talking about recession. 

Such gloomy views, uttered by officials at the highest level, may be one more signal that despite what still appears to be a vigorous economy in Canada, we really are teetering on the brink. Even people denying a recession is coming may contribute.

Contagious worry

The technically minded among us like to look for hard mechanistic warnings, such as the inverted yield curve, to tell us a recession is around the corner. But this time that bond market signal, where short-term interest rates creep higher than long-term rates, may be a cause as much as an independent indicator.

Many experts have expressed the view that with central banks manipulating long- and short-term rates, both of which remain near historic lows, the yield curve is not the recessionary portent it once was.

But what the yield curve warning did do was increase the one thing that is well known as a precursor of recessions: that is, growing worries about recession.

Despite a passion for math and charts and graphs, it is increasingly accepted that economics is not a science like physics but the study of a social process, with money as the unit of measure.

Banking giant HSBC announced this week it was cutting 10 per cent of staff despite a strong balance sheet. Competitors will likely follow suit. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

As in other communal phenomena, this monetized sociology is a product of how we react to each other, and while recessions often have an external trigger that takes the blame, there is evidence that a recessionary mood grows until we hit a tipping point of the kind described by Canadian author and social analyst Malcolm Gladwell.

"The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire," wrote Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point.

If that applies to recessions, then economic indicators such as declining investment, trade hostility, a drop in manufacturing, plus declines in consumer confidence, retail sales and employment are not cause-and-effect, but co-variables.

Thinking recessionary thoughts

That means the best indicator of recession are signals we are thinking about recession. Here are five possible telltale signs.

Google searches of terms including the word recession have reached levels similar to before the last recession.

1. Personal finance advice

The growing number of articles on the business pages telling you what to do with your money to prepare for recession. People who have money and move it to safer places may directly cause the economy to shrink. But even for those without liquid investments to move around, the warnings help spread the idea that recession is coming.

2. Corporate downsizing

Big companies, including this week the financial giant HSBC, announcing plans to lay off staff in anticipation of harder times. The global bank, one of the first to batten down for the Great Recession of 2008, says it plans to cut 10 per cent of its employees, despite having a healthy balance sheet. Watch for whether it spreads to competitors and other industries.

3. The R-word

An early recognition of the tipping-point concept was the R-word Index proposed by the Economist magazine decades ago, which demonstrated mentions of the word recession in newspapers grew when recessions approached. That crowdsourced index has been updated and broadened by Google Trends, where searches that include the word recession themselves become recessionary indicators. The Washington Post reports that such searches have now reached 2008 levels

4. Empty shop fronts

This is an indicator we can check in our neighbourhoods. In a retail strip I frequent, suddenly the number of empty store fronts has noticeably increased, helping to share a gloomy mood. Not even nail salons are moving in. It's a down-home sign people don't think it's time to begin a risky venture. Do your own research.

5. Penny pinching 

The other local thing you can watch for in your office or home life is what one commentator recently called "the rise of the petty bean-counters," the feeling that with bad times around the corner it is time to cut back on stationery, office parties or personal luxuries. As well as pulling morale down, when we all cut back on spending it shrinks the entire economy, potentially crossing Gladwell's tipping point threshold and spreading like wildfire.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

 

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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