The advance estimate for first quarter GDP came in decidedly below expectations at a 2.5% annual rate, but even that rate belies the fact that real final sales slowed to just 1.5% growth, from 1.8% last quarter. The remaining 1% of the first-quarter growth figure – 40% of the total – represented the accumulation of unsold inventory. My view remains that the U.S. is unlikely to avoid joining the rest of the developed world in a global recession that is already underway, and may well be already underway in the U.S. once data revisions are reflected. The year-over-year growth rates of real GDP and real final sales have declined to just 1.80% and 1.87% respectively, which is the first time in this economic cycle that both have simultaneously declined from above 2.0% to below 1.9% - an occurrence that has been a hallmark of every post-war recession, with remarkably few false signals for such a simple measure. The Fed’s ability to kick-the-can in increments of a few months at a time may allow this time to be different, but investors should recognize that they are relying on that proposition.
It is certainly not the case that economic recessions precisely overlap with bear markets. Rather, bear markets are frequently underway before recessions are evident, and typically end several months before the recessions do. For that reason, market returns aren’t reliably abysmal when measured from the very start of a recession to its very end. Even so, note the shaded recessions in the chart below. Bear markets in equities occurred in 1956, 1961, 1970, 1973-74, 1981-82, 1990, 2000-02, and 2007-09. Of course, there are many less severe but still damaging market declines that occurred in the absence of recession.