Dec 12, 2018

Why you should stop worrying about a recession

Illustration of Abraham Lincoln's five-dollar portrait with a sweat drop.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One of the biggest risks to the stock market is the fear of a recession, much more so than a recession itself.

The big picture: Yes there will be a recession, but it's almost certainly not going to be another catastrophic financial crisis, like 2008. It could be very mild.

  • When will the recession arrive? No one has a clue, and if history is any guide, there will be debate even while we’re already in it about whether there will be one.
  • What will a recession mean in practice? Recessions are generally bad for employment, but the jobs situation could deteriorate even without a recession. The market is not a snapshot of the economy, and can easily rise during a recession.

There are warning signs of an economic slowdown, but there's a strong case that a recession could still be several years away.

  • We're not about to collapse under a pile of debt. Household finances are still healthy. Household outstanding debt is about 79% of GDP. It was 125% at its 2009 peak. And while corporate debt has gotten a bit excessive, BlackRock says that debt levels are still manageable.
  • A large crash like in 2000 could hurt, but a simple bear market, with valuations down 20% from their high, would have relatively little effect on the economy.
  • Interest rate hikes have become less of a risk. Fed chairman Jerome Powell has already dialed back his plans for rate hikes in 2019, saying any such hikes will only arrive in response to new data about economic strength. Interest rates are not yet so high as to cause a recession.
  • Hundreds of thousands of long-term unemployed have re-entered the labor force, often at companies where they learn transferable skills, Axios Future editor Steve LeVine noted yesterday. That may juice the entire economy, creating the conditions for higher GDP growth and "a persistent, positive macroeconomic effect," says Jason Furman, former chief economist to President Obama and now a professor at Harvard.

The bottom line: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Go deeper