We noticed the first signs that the economy was beginning to soften about three months ago. Now the evidence of a slowdown has become so overwhelming that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are headed for a recession. We cite the following as evidence.
Retail sales (both total and non-auto) have dropped for three consecutive months. This has happened only five times since 1967—-four times in 2008, and one now. Vehicle sales have tapered off with May and June being the two weakest months of the year. Consumer confidence for both the Conference Board index and the University of Michigan Survey are at their lowest levels of 2012.
On the labor front, June payroll numbers were weak once again and averaged only 75,000 in the second quarter. The latest weekly new claims for unemployment insurance jumped back up to 386,000 and the last two months have been well above the numbers seen earlier in the year.
The ISM manufacturing index for June fell 3.8 points to 49.7, its first sub-50 reading in the economic recovery. The ISM non-manufacturing index for June dropped to its lowest level since January 2010. Most recently the Philadelphia Fed Survey for July was negative (below zero) for the third consecutive month.
The small business confidence index declined in June to its lowest level since October and has now dropped in three of the last four months. Plans for capital spending and new hiring have dropped sharply.
Despite all of the talk about a housing bottom, June existing home sales fell 5.4% to its lowest level since the fall of last year. In addition mortgage applications for home purchases have been range-bound since October.
Core factory orders, while volatile on a month-to-month basis, have declined 2.6% since year-end, and the ISM numbers cited above indicate the weakness is likely to continue.
The Conference Board Index of leading indicators has declined for two of the last three months and is now up only 1.4% over a year earlier, the lowest since November of 2009, when it was climbing from recessionary numbers. The ECRI Weekly Leading Index is indicating a recession is either here now or will begin in the next few months.
The breadth and depth of the slowdown are greater than the growth pauses experienced in mid-2010 and mid-2011, and indicate a strong likelihood of recession ahead. In addition the foreign economies will be a drag as well. A number of European nations are already in recession and others are on the cusp. The debt, deficit and balance sheet problems of the EU’s southern tier are a long way from any solution, and will not remain out of the news for long. China is coming down from a major real estate and credit boom, and is not likely to avoid a hard landing. The Shanghai Composite is in a major downtrend, declining 28% since April 2011. The view that China is immune because of their unique economic system reminds us of what people were saying about Japan in 1989.
The stock market is ignoring these fundamentals as it did in early 2000 and late 2007 in the belief that the Fed can pull another rabbit out its hat. It couldn’t do it in 2000 or 2007 when it had plenty of weapons at its disposal. Now there is little that the Fed can do, although it will try since it will not get any help, as Senator Schumer so aptly pointed out at Bernanke’s Senate testimony. In sum, we believe that the stock market is in store for a huge disappointment.