Business Outlook: The Recovery: It's the Herd vs. History

There's an old saying in economic forecasting: The consensus is always wrong. But which way? The average forecast of the 52 economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators calls for growth in real gross domestic product of 2.7% over the next four quarters, with the annual rate in any single quarter no greater than 3%. This early in the recovery, it's tough to argue that the consensus is either too pessimistic or too optimistic, but one thing is clear. The herd does not think the past tendency of strong recoveries to follow deep recessions will hold true this time. For example, in the first year after the severe slumps in 1973-75 and 1981-82, real GDP grew 6.2% and 7.7%, respectively.

The correlation between the depth of recessions and the strength of recoveries over the last nine business cycles is unmistakable. It relates to the extent of the cuts businesses make in output, payrolls, and inventories. It also reflects the amount of pent-up demand created as consumers and businesses postpone spending. Like a rubber band, the economy snaps back in proportion to how far it was pulled down, as consumers finally upgrade old laptops and buy new clothes, and businesses replace inventories and worn-out equipment.

If the consensus is right, the economy's departure from past experience would be striking. Economist Robert J. Barbera at the research and trading firm ITG (ITG) notes that after each of the past nine recessions, deep or shallow, real GDP has never required more than three quarters to regain its peak level prior to the downturn. If GDP staged a full recovery over the next three quarters, the economy would grow at a 5.4% annual rate. Even stretched over four quarters, the pace would still be 4.1%.

The common argument is that the usual rebound effect will be limited by the aftershock of the financial crisis: Credit growth is plunging, because households need to unload debt and save more amid lost wealth and tight credit, limiting the business sector's response. However, that's no sure thing. Data on credit flows are not particularly useful for predicting the strength of a recovery, according to economists at Barclays Capital. They note that in the strong upturns of the 1970s and 1980s, consumer spending accelerated well before the upturn in consumer credit.

Early in recoveries, the growth of household income is a more important impetus to spending than credit. As job losses fade, pay from wages and salaries, about 60% of aftertax income, will turn up, as it did in July for the first time in nine months. Also, a lot of spending is done by households and businesses that either don't need to borrow or have good credit quality.

The recovery's oomph will also turn on how much income households feel they need to put away to eliminate debt and restore nest eggs. A rising saving rate weighs heavily on the growth of consumer spending. However, with savings in the second quarter already at 5% of aftertax income, up from 1.2% in early 2008, the saving rate may be about as high as it needs to go to give households the cushion they want.

Historically, saving behavior loosely tracks the ratio of household income to wealth. As that ratio rises, in this case because of plunging stock prices and home values, so does the savings rate. By the second quarter the ratio had risen to the levels of the early 1990s, when the saving rate was about 6%, close to where it is now. Moreover, households in the second quarter recovered $2 trillion of the $14 trillion in net worth lost during the recession, and rising stock and home prices imply another gain of about $2 trillion this quarter.

So far, the raft of surprisingly positive data in recent weeks supports the more upbeat recovery scenario. In particular, the index of leading indicators, a composite of 10 gauges that tends to foreshadow recessions and recoveries, has turned up sharply. Since March the index has grown at an 11.7% annual rate, the fastest five-month pace since the 1981-82 recession.

For now, none of this will change the minds of the more pessimistic forecasters. However, the historical pattern is on the side of the optimists.

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