How likely is a US recession? About 75 per cent

A growing number of economists are predicting a US recession is on the cards, which could have a potentially significant effect on the Australian and global economies

The global economy is now in its steepest slowdown following a post-recession recovery since 1970. Global consumer confidence has already suffered a much sharper decline than in the run-up to previous global recessions and the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 (otherwise known as the great recession). The world’s three largest economies – the United States, China, and the Euro area – have been slowing sharply. And as central banks across the world simultaneously hike interest rates in response to inflation, the world may be edging toward a global recession in 2023.

Central banks around the world (including the Reserve Bank of Australia) have also been raising interest rates over consecutive quarters with a degree of synchronicity not seen over the past five decades – a trend that is likely to continue well into next year, according to a recent World Bank report. Yet the currently expected trajectory of interest-rate increases and other policy actions may not be sufficient to bring global inflation back down to levels seen before the pandemic. Investors expect central banks to raise global monetary policy rates to almost 4 per cent through 2023 – an increase of more than 2 percentage points over their 2021 average.

Read more: Is Australia’s coronavirus bill a debt burden future generations must bear?

Unless supply disruptions and labour-market pressures subside, those interest-rate increases could leave the global core inflation rate (excluding energy) at about 5 per cent in 2023, which is nearly double the five-year average before the pandemic. In fact, the IMF forecasts inflation in advanced economies will hit 7.2 per cent this year and 4.4 per cent next year. To cut global inflation to a rate consistent with their monetary policy targets, central banks may need to raise interest rates by an additional 2 percentage points, according to the modelling in the World Bank report.

If this were accompanied by financial market stresses global gross domestic product (GDP) growth would slow to 0.5 per cent in 2023. This would represent a 0.4 per cent contraction in per-capita terms that would meet the technical definition of a recession, which the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) says is a period between a peak and a trough in the business cycle where there is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy that can last from a few months to more than a year. This economic activity is visible in a variety of macroeconomic indicators including real GDP, high unemployment rates, real income, industrial production supply chains, stock market performance as well as wholesale-retail sales.

Konark Saxena, Associate Professor in the School of Banking and Finance at UNSW Business School, examines what a global recession could mean for Australia and how consumers across the country might be impacted by such a downturn.

Konark Saxena, Associate Professor in the School of Banking and Finance at UNSW Business School.jpg
Konark Saxena, Associate Professor in the School of Banking and Finance at UNSW Business School, pegs the likelihood of a US recession at around 75 per cent. Photo: supplied

How likely is a recession in the US? Percentage chances?

A/Prof. Saxena: My estimate is that the probability is more than 50 per cent: about 75 per cent.

Why such high odds? In order to bring down inflation, the US Federal Reserve needs to increase interest rates till either inflation subsides, or economic growth starts flattening. Given the Federal Reserve’s mandate and the current momentum of inflation, I feel that economic activity will slow down before the Federal Reserve stops increasing interest rates. Technically, that means that a recession is very likely.

Having said that, I want to point out that there are various types of recessions. My expectation is that the US recession will be a mild one. In this case, global GDP growth would slow down, but not by as much as the early 1980s, after the Federal Reserve’s Volker increased interest rates to combat inflation. And because activity wouldn’t slow down by that much, inflation wouldn’t slow down by that much either. This mild recession scenario assumes that the FED would stop tightening before the recession became severe, even if inflation remains persistently high at that time. This also means that nominal interest rates are expected to remain high.

My expectations for the Federal Reserve are partly based on the US yield curve. Currently, it shows interest rates increasing for maturities till about one-year and then decreasing for longer maturities. So, investors expect the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates in the short-term, and then start moderately decreasing towards the end of next year, probably to prevent the recession from getting severe.

What likely impact will this have on Australia, as well as the rest of the world (particularly trading partners)?

A/Prof. Saxena: Let’s consider the mild recession scenario. In this case, both inflation and interest rates in the US economy are expected to remain high, while growth flattens. I don’t expect the US unemployment rate to increase dramatically, which is one of the reasons I’m calling it a mild US recession.

For the rest of the world, this has two main impacts. First, lower US growth is going to slow down the growth in the rest of the world. Especially for countries that export to the US, and those that export to other countries like China, which in turn export to the US. This typically also leads to lower commodity demand and prices.

Second, high US interest rates can create financial distress in countries that are unable to match them. High US interest rates will put pressure on countries to either increase domestic interest rates or accept a substantially devalued currency because capital chases currencies with relatively higher interest rates. This outflow of capital from lower interest rate countries might push some highly leveraged economies into financial distress, especially those with USD-denominated debt.

What factors would likely help protect Australia from a global recession?

A/Prof. Saxena: The Australian economy has been resilient in a global decreasing interest rate environment. That spans the last three decades. If the US recession leads us back towards a globally low interest rate environment, then I expect Australia to continue to be resilient – even in times when global growth has slowed down.

The current low level of wage inflation is also a strength that will protect the Australian economy. It not only helps keep inflation low, but also gives fiscal policy the flexibility to increase labour productivity, even if this creates wage inflation. Increasing wages can help offset any required increases in interest rates, so that households with higher nominal wages will find it easier to pay off higher nominal interest rates. For example, if a household needs to pay $100 extra in interest every week, but also earns $100 more in wages, then the effect of nominal interest rate hikes is offset by nominal wage increases.

Another advantage of the current low wage inflation, and a good level of fiscal policy flexibility, is that it gives the RBA more flexibility to keep rates lower for longer than some international peers. This buys us time to fix some of the issues that risk household financial distress.

The current low level of wage inflation in Australia helps keep inflation low.jpg
The current low level of wage inflation in Australia helps keep inflation low and also gives fiscal policy the flexibility to increase labour productivity. Photo: Shutterstock

Where is the Australian economy more exposed?

A/Prof. Saxena: In my view, the main risk to the Australian economy is financial distress. I expect the real economy to be resilient if we are able to avoid financial distress.

There are two types of financial distress risks I am concerned about: household financial distress and currency risk. Household financial distress increases if households can’t pay their mortgages when the RBA increases interest rates too much. Currency crisis risk increases if capital leaves Australia for higher interest rate currencies when the RBA does not increase interest rates enough. It is a delicate situation and there is a risk that eventually RBA will not have enough flexibility to manage these two conflicting forces.

As mentioned above, I feel one way to avoid these two extreme scenarios, is increasing labour productivity, wage growth, and wage inflation. If households are working and their wages are growing enough, they should be able to handle increases in interest rates thanks to their higher pay cheques. Such wage inflation can help not only working homeowners pay higher nominal interest rates, but it also benefits renters who can save more.

If we can manage an orderly reduction of (nominal) household debt without incentivising too much risk-taking, then it will give RBA more flexibility to increase interest rates and bring them in line with US interest rates.

Read more: How to hedge your superannuation fund against recession risk

What would the likely impact of a recession be on the general Australian consumer?

A/Prof. Saxena: Assuming we are forced to keep interest rates low, I see the impact of the recession on Australian consumers on two main fronts – the first of which is imported US inflation. High US inflation will also increase the price of US goods and services that we purchase from the US, and thereby increase the general price levels around the world. So, the rest of the world will import US inflation unless they can offer higher real rates and strengthen their USD exchange rates to offset US inflation.

The second front Australians may be impacted with is reduced Australian wealth in US dollars, which would lower the ability to import and consume foreign goods and services. This is likely to hurt Australian consumers as our imports from the US are an important part of our consumption basket.

While the first is largely an external factor that Australian policy cannot influence, the second is not. The reduction in (US dollar-denominated) Australian wealth, can be avoided if we are able to sustain higher interest rates without causing domestic financial distress.

Australians may be impacted through reduced wealth in U.S. dollars.jpg
Australians may be impacted through reduced wealth in US dollars, which would lower the ability to import and consume foreign goods and services. Photo: Shutterstock

How might the recession impact younger people, particularly those who have never experienced a recession before?

A/Prof. Saxena: Young Australians are less likely to have debt than middle-aged Australians, so the direct impact of increasing interest rates is less for them. However, the indirect impacts, via the labour market, can be more severe unless they are managed well.

However, in general, high interest rates favour human capital and risky ideas over financial capital and investment in the status quo. This is because risky business ideas with potentially high growth rates are required to keep up with high interest rates. By contrast, when interest rates are decreasing, investors tend to prefer status quo-type businesses or assets such as bonds and real estate. To me, that’s the bright side of an increasing interest rate environment, especially when we are facing challenges like climate change that require such risky ideas and economic transformation.

For example, the 1970s high-interest rate environment made way for the 1980s, when policymakers were able to rein in inflation. Tremendous entrepreneurial activity and economic transformation followed: the internet, PC, and other technologies that have fuelled global growth since then. Firms that were successful were growing significantly faster than the cost of capital required by the high interest rates of the 1980s (more than 5 per cent typically). So, they attracted capital to fuel that growth. And they were able to outperform their larger competitors, which were not investing in risky ideas as much, such as IBM. Young people, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who built their human capital in the 1970s, were the ones who eventually benefited from the technological progress of the 1980s.

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Young people have brains that are more adaptable to change, they have fewer financial commitments and debt, and fewer family responsibilities. So, in a way, they are best positioned to adapt themselves for an economy that rewards innovation and leaps ahead of the status quo, rather than ideas that incrementally improve on existing ways of doing things.

If a recession does happen, my advice to young people would be to use this time to reflect on how they would like to contribute to the future economy. This a good time to build skills and networks who they can work with towards these goals in the coming decade. Once the economy starts growing, 2024-2025 by many estimates, I expect more capital to be available to invest in risky ideas with high growth potential. They should try to ride the economic waves, not fight them.

Konark Saxena is an Associate Professor at the School of Banking and Finance at UNSW Business School. His research expertise and industry experience includes various aspects of portfolio construction such as portfolio optimisation, asset allocation, factor investing, and macro-finance. He also researches the asset management industry's organisation, and how fund manager incentives and their efforts in producing original research influences their alpha production. For more information please contact A/Prof. Saxena directly.


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