The Wall Street Journal article entitled “Wall Street’s Favorite Recession Indicator is in a Slump of its Own” caught our attention this week. The writer asks the question of whether there is still value in the idea that an inverted Treasury yield curve can predict a recession. The yield curve, typically measured as the spread between the 1-year or 2-year Treasury note and the 10-year note, has currently been inverted for 23 months and since 1968, an inverted yield curve has been followed by a recession in the subsequent nine to 24 months. So, by historical standards, we should be in or entering a recession right now.

But there are no signs of a recession on the horizon, particularly with monthly employment statistics showing job growth averaging 242,000 over the last three months and there are no signs that the yield curve inversion will end any time soon. Therefore, it is valid to question whether there is still value in an inverted yield curve or if the current environment is the beginning of a “new normal.”

We believe the inverted yield curve is a valid indicator and we do not think this is a new normal. Recessions and expansions might be muted by monetary and fiscal policy, but in our opinion, they cannot be eliminated. And we admit that we count ourselves among those who were looking for a recession last year. This was not due just to the inverted yield curve, but also to the string of months of negative year-over-year real retail sales, the Conference Board’s leading economic indicator signaling a recession for 22 consecutive months (ending in February 2024), and suspected weakness in the housing market. The one recession indicator that did not appear was perhaps the most critical and that is weakening job growth. Whenever the year-over-year change in employment in the establishment and household surveys turn negative, it is an excellent forecaster of a recession. That signal did not materialize. Was it because there was a massive catch up in employment after the Covid–19 shutdown? Or was there some underlying driver of the economy that was not being measured? In retrospect, it seems quite clear that it is due to a historical level of fiscal stimulus.

The Federal Reserve had been too dovish for too long in the face of rising inflation, but the inverted yield curve was a sign that this stimulus was being unwound. What was not being unwound was fiscal stimulus. And even though the pandemic stimulus passed by Congress was slowly fading into the background, it was followed in August 2022, by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (which should have been named the Clean Energy Act) which the administration described as “one of the largest investments in the American economy, energy security, and climate that Congress has made in the nation’s history. In short, the stimulus continued well after the pandemic was over.

More recently the administration has shifted to boosting the economy through government agencies. This is best seen on website which currently lists in its press releases the following statements: May 21, 2024 – 1 Million PACT Act Claims Approved and Benefits Delivered to Veterans in all 50 States and US Territories; May 22, 2024 – Statement from President Joe Biden on $7.7 Billion in Student Debt Cancellation for 160,000 borrowers; May 22, 2024 – Biden to Release 1 Million Barrels of Gasoline to Reduce Prices at the Pump Ahead of July 4; May 24, 2024 – Statement on the Signing of the Recruit and Retain Act (COPS – Community-Oriented Policing Services); May 24, 2024 – Meeting with Community Lenders Expanding Capital for Underserved Communities; May 28, 2024 – Biden-Harris administration Launches Federal-State Initiative to Bolster America’s Power Grid. Over the past week there have also been various federal disaster relief programs for West Virginia, Nebraska, Maine, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas, which have suffered from tornadoes and other weather-related disasters.

We are not making judgment on any of these spending initiatives; however, it is clear that there has been a steady stream of fiscal stimulus over the last four years. Moreover, the White House website reveals that it continues on a near-daily basis.

This spending is liquidity and liquidity is good for financial markets. But spending also results in deficits and at some point, it will have to stop, perhaps abruptly. We wonder how many of today’s investors remember the Greek debt crisis that materialized shortly after the financial crisis of 2008-2009. It crushed the Greek economy, and it should be mandatory reading for all investors and all politicians. But for now, the US debt market appears complacent and that is good news for equities.

May’s Conference Board consumer confidence indices improved from upwardly revised levels in April; nevertheless, the indices remain in the lower half of the range seen over the last 18 months. Revised numbers for May’s University of Michigan consumer sentiment indices were up slightly from initial estimates, yet again, indices remain well below January’s peak. In general, sentiment indices improved from April’s lows, but remain below recent peaks and well below 2019 peaks. See page 3.

New home sales were 634,000 units in April, down 5% for the month, down 7.7% YOY, and negative for the first time in 12 months. Existing home sales were 4.14 million units, down 1.9% for the month, down 1.9% YOY, and remain in the negative year-over-year pattern seen since August 2021. In both cases, sales are well below the peak levels seen in January 2021 for new home sales and below the October 2020 peak in existing home sales. See page 4.

All the same, the median price of a new single-family home was $433,500 in April, down 1.4% for the month, but up nearly 4% YOY. This is just 6% below the record new home price of $460,300 set in October 2022. The median price of an existing home was $412,100, up nearly 4% for the month, up 5.6% YOY, and close to the record $415,700 price set in June 2023. See page 5.

Residential construction and housing prices have remained strong despite a slowing sales trend due to limited inventory. The months of supply of existing single-family homes reached a record low of 1.6 in January 2022, and while it rose to 3.4 months in April, up from 3.0 months in March, the supply of homes remains historically low. It should be noted that an assortment of home price indices indicate prices are rising again, after a slump from February 2022 to April 2023. See page 6.

Existing home sales are currently six to seven times larger than new home sales and would probably be higher if inventory were greater. However, many households are finding it difficult to move or trade up in a housing market with both rising prices and higher interest rates. Still, there are signs that the housing market is improving in 2024 and if the Fed cuts interest rates later this year, the residential real estate market should improve significantly. This is just one example of why Fed policy has been a major focus for investors. See page 7. Right now, financial markets are complacent that cuts are ahead. The PCE deflator reported later this week will therefore be an important release. And finally, technical indicators are supportive of the current rally. The one laggard is our 25-day up/down volume oscillator, which despite being overbought for four consecutive days recently, is yet to confirm the advance.

Gail Dudack

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PLEASE NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, the firm and any affiliated person or entity 1) either does not own any, or owns less than 1%, of the outstanding shares of any public company mentioned, 2) does not receive, and has not within the past 12 months received, investment banking compensation or other compensation from any public company mentioned, and 3) does not expect within the next three months to receive investment banking compensation or other compensation from any public company mentioned. The firm does not currently make markets in any public securities.

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