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Recession Talk Rising

Warning lights

(Washington, D.C.) AMERICA'S 2008 recession, if it happens, will not catch anyone by surprise. Peddling gloom is the new parlour game on Wall Street and beyond. According to recent opinion polls, almost six out of ten Americans believe the country is already in a recession. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton claims the economy is "slipping" towards one.

Wall Street seers, perhaps stung by criticism that they missed the onset of previous downturns, are piling in too. Although most forecasters still expect a formal recession will be avoided (typically putting the odds at around 40%), not everyone agrees. Morgan Stanley expects a mild recession in the first half of 2008. On January 7th Merrill Lynch became the first big bank to declare recession a "present-day reality". Two days later the economists at Goldman Sachs agreed that "recession has now arrived, or will very shortly."

These assessments were driven largely by the dismal December jobs figures released on January 4th. America's jobless rate is now 0.6 percentage points above the cyclical trough reached in March 2007. At no point in the past 60 years, the Merrill economists point out, has the unemployment rate risen by more than half a percentage point from its trough without the economy slipping into recession.

The Economist's informal R-word index is also sounding alarms. Our gauge counts how many stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times use the word "recession" in a quarter. This simple formula pinpointed the start of recession in 1981 and 1990 and 2001. In the past few years the R-word index has been extremely low. It began to rise in the second half of 2007 and, measured at a quarterly rate, has soared in early 2008. Although the number of stories is still lower than before previous recessions, the recent jump -- if sustained for a quarter -- is similar to that which preceded the 2001 downturn.

Other, more formal recession indicators are flashing, if not yet red. One of the most reliable gauges is the weekly leading index from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI). This index correctly forecast the past two recessions and is now showing its weakest performance since the 2001 recession. But ECRI is not quite ready to predict recession yet. According to Lakshman Achuthan, its managing director, exports and prompt policy stimulus could still avert a formal downturn.