Highlights

  • Valuation measures and technical indicators are widely followed market gauges, but neither set of metrics dependably warns of impending bear markets.
  • Recessions might, however, as they almost always overlap with bear markets. A simple indicator using just three inputs - the yield curve, the index of leading economic indicators ("LEI") and the state of monetary policy - has correctly called all seven recessions of the last fifty years.
  • Our recession indicator is timely as well as accurate. It turns red an average of six months ahead of a recession, aligning closely with the S&P 500's average cyclical peak.
  • Our indicator is currently giving the all-clear signal, and we do not expect it will sound the alarm for at least another year. We do not foresee downgrading equities to underweight before then unless trade tensions take a turn for the worse, the S&P 500 rises parabolically, or the Fed moves its hiking timetable forward.

Feature

Investors who get the biggest macro questions right will generally find themselves on the right side of their performance benchmarks. The biggest question right now is how much longer the equity bull market will last. Trying to call a market top is folly, but "close enough" counts for recognizing the beginning of bear markets, and we are confident that our recession indicator gets close enough to provide a practical asset-allocation guide. While our indicator has moved closer to sounding the alarm over the last year, it is not yet signaling any immediate trouble.1

Can We Call Bear Markets?

Neither we nor any other investor can consistently call market tops or bottoms with any degree of accuracy. The core problem is that doing so requires pinpointing the moment when a firmly established trend reverses for good - after all, a bear market begins the day a bull market concludes, and vice versa. As our colleague Martin Barnes has pointed out, there are no foolproof guides to identifying these inflection points in real time.2 The most popular rules of thumb - valuation measures, technical indicators and the calendar - are of no help at all in forecasting equity bear markets.

Equities are surely more vulnerable when they trade at high multiples than when they trade at low multiples, but conventional valuation measures have been all over the map ahead of the eight bear markets that have occurred over the last 50 years (Box 1). The late-'80-to-early-'82 and 1990 bear markets occurred despite P/E, Shiller P/E and P/B multiples that were all comfortably below their long-run medians (Chart 1, second, third and fourth panels). The dot-com-bubble bear market occurred when every valuation metric was at an all-time high, to be sure, but our composite valuation indicator had spent three solid years in extremely overvalued territory (Chart 1, bottom panel) before the bear finally arrived.

BOX 1

50 Years Of U.S. Equity Bear Markets

For the purposes of this Special Report, we adhere to the classic definition of a bear market - a peak-to-trough closing price decline of at least 20% - and we confine our analysis to the last 50 years. The result is eight bear markets, as shown in Table 1 (we round the 1990 bear up to 20% from 19.9% but leave out the 1998 and 2011 corrections of 19.3% and 19.4%, respectively). Chart 3 shows the S&P 500, in log scale, with NBER-defined recessions shaded in gray and bear markets shaded in light red. The shaded chart brings two key observations to the fore: recessions and bear markets nearly always travel together (gray and light red only failed to overlap in the opening leg of the double-dip Volcker recessions and 1987's Black Monday), and bull markets (the white space in the chart) are more or less the S&P 500's default condition. The bear markets can be nasty, however, and a process that could help a manager sidestep even a portion of their declines could lead to significant outperformance over time.

Technical indicators don't provide consistently reliable advance signals, either. Nearly all of the most overheated technical environments of the last 50 years (Chart 2, bottom panel) worked themselves off without tipping into full-fledged bear-market declines. Our composite technical indicator looks much more like a coincident indicator than a leading one. The calendar is of no help at all; since 1968, bull markets have lasted anywhere from two to nine years, and the current one, within two weeks and a percentage point of becoming the longest of the postwar era, may make it to ten.

Chart 1
Valuation Is A Poor Guide To Bear Markets ...
Chart 1

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Chart 2
... And Technicals Aren't Much Better
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Table 1
U.S. Equity Bear Markets, 1968 -2018
Table 1

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Chart 3
50 Years Of Recessions And Bear Markets
Chart 3

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Can We Call Recessions?

Given the mingling of gray and red in Chart 3, a reliable recession indicator would be nearly as good as an equity bear market indicator. As noted above, only one recession (January to July 1980) passed without an accompanying bear market. Only the fall 1987 bear market occurred outside of a recession, though the two 19% corrections over our sample period also occurred ex-recessions. We submit that these three declines, accompanied by Black Monday's 20% one-day crash, the Russian crisis and the implosion of Long-Term Capital Management, and the U.S. debt-ceiling showdown and the euro crisis, were sparked by exogenous events that nearly defied prediction.

Economists have a deservedly poor reputation for foretelling recessions. As the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it, "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable." Perhaps the Ph.Ds have overcomplicated matters by trying to pack too many variables into convoluted models. We have found that just three simple measures, in combination, have called all of the recessions in our 50-year sample without a single false positive.

Our Recession Indicators

Our first recession indicator is the orientation of the yield curve, defined as the sign of the difference between the 10-year Treasury bond yield and the 3-month T-bill rate.3 When the 3-month's rate exceeds the 10-year's yield, the curve is inverted and a recession typically follows. In our 50-year sample period, the yield curve has successfully called all seven recessions with just one false positive (Chart 4). As a standalone indicator, however, it tends to be overly eager, prematurely signaling the onset of a recession by an average of nearly twelve months (Table 2).

Chart 4
The Yield Curve Has Called 8 Of The Last 7 Recessions...
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Table 2
Inverted Yield Curves, 1968 - 2018
Table 2

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Our second recession indicator is the sign of the year-over-year change in the index of the leading economic indicators ("LEI"). When the LEI contracts on a year-over-year basis, a recession typically ensues. As with the inverted yield curve, year-over-year contractions in the LEI have successfully called all of the recessions in our sample with just one false positive (Chart 5). The LEI signal tends to flip to red in a more timely fashion than the perpetually early yield curve, leading recessions by an average of six-plus months (Table 3).

Chart 5
...And So Have Leading Economic Indicators
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Table 3
LEI Contractions, 1968 - 2018
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The false positives go away once we combine the yield curve and the LEI into a single signal. To confirm that signal and make it more robust, we also consider the monetary policy backdrop. Over the nearly 60 years for which BCA's model calculates an estimate of the equilibrium fed funds rate, every recession has occurred when the fed funds rate has exceeded our estimate of equilibrium (Chart 6). In other words, recessions only occur when monetary policy settings are restrictive. In this case, the old market wisdom really is wise: expansions don't die of old age, they die because the Fed murders them.

Chart 6
Tight Policy Is A Necessary, But Not Sufficient, Recession Ingredient
Chart 6

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From Recession Indicator To Portfolio Strategy Tool

Relative asset-class performance in previous bear markets, as detailed in the initial version of this study, published last summer by our Global ETF Strategy service,4 clearly argues for portfolio de-risking ahead of a recession. Investors would have benefited handsomely from overweighting bonds and cash at the expense of equities, overweighting countercyclical stocks and underweighting cyclicals, and overweighting Treasuries while underweighting high-yield corporates. Timing those defensive shifts is hardly clear-cut, however. The lead times between yield curve inversion, LEI contraction, the onset of restrictive monetary policy and the beginning of a recession vary from cycle to cycle.

Fortunately for investors, waiting until all of the indicator components are in agreement dampens much of the variability in lead times. As Table 4 shows, the LEI signal is much less hasty than either the yield curve or the policy signals. It typically is the last component to flip, guiding the composite indicator to issue its recession signal just one week ahead of the S&P 500's average pre-recession peak. Sample averages mask in-sample variability, and the composite indicator does not march in lockstep with the S&P 500, but it is timely enough to have managed to catch about three-fourths of every bear market that coincided with a recession (Table 5).

Table 4
Lead Times For Indicator Components And Bear Markets
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Table 5
Share Of Bear Markets Captured By Recession Indicator
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Why Bother?

Some of our colleagues, duly noting forecasting's inherent difficulties, argue that there's little to be gained from attempting to narrow down the potential range of bear-market start dates. Fearful of the consequences of flying too close to the sun, they suggest that investors de-risk when enough common-sense-defying signs of a peak accumulate, and not worry about leaving some performance on the table. Such an approach has the benefits of being flexible and intuitive, but is difficult to apply consistently. Even proponents of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's legendary I-know-it-when-I-see-it obscenity standard have to concede that its parameters are arbitrary.

It is also a concern that licking one's finger and holding it aloft is likely to put one squarely in the midst of the herd. The practicality of Justice Stewart's standard hinges on broad agreement: only if the distribution of opinions within the consensus is very narrow will a good deal of the community be satisfied with decisions based on it. Comity is the enemy of alpha, however, and an investor whose common sense is too common will wind up exiting the market too early and getting back into it too late, underperforming on both sides of the inflection point.

The empirical record suggests that there's much to be lost from leaving too early. Bull markets tend to end with a bang, not a whimper (Chart 7 and Table 6). It is unlikely that investors who are willing to forego some returns in the name of security on the way up have the temperament to get back in at the beginning stages of the next rally. Factor in our view that public-market returns will be thin gruel over the next five to ten years compared to what investors have enjoyed since 1982, and one can make a case for trying to capture as much of the current bull market's gains as possible.

Chart 7
Sprinting To The Finish Line
Chart 7

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Table 6
Finishing In Style
Table 6

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Investment Implications

Our composite recession indicator has done an excellent job of flagging recessions in advance. As recessions and equity bear markets are such steadfast companions, the composite recession indicator holds considerable promise as a tool to help investors capture a greater share of bull-market gains while helping them skirt some bear-market losses. Given a flattening but still positively-sloped yield curve, booming year-on-year growth in the LEI, and a policy rate that looks to be at least a year from becoming restrictive, we see no recession on the horizon. Unless trade negotiations fall apart, the S&P 500 melts up, or the Fed's rate-hiking guidance gets much more aggressive, we do not expect that investors will have cause to put their recession/bear market game plan into place for at least another year.

Doug Peta, Senior Vice President
U.S. Investment Strategy
dougp@bcaresearch.com

  • 1 This Special Report is adapted from the August 16, 2017 Global ETF Strategy Special Report, "A Guide To Spotting And Weathering Bear Markets," available at etf.bcaresearch.com.
  • 2 Please see BCA Research Special Reports, "Timing The Next Equity Bear Market," and "Timing Equity Bear Markets," published January 24, 2014 and April 6, 2011, respectively, available at www.bcaresearch.com.
  • 3 We use the 3-month/10-year segment instead of the more common 2-year/10-year because the 3-month bill is a cleaner proxy for short rates than the 2-year note, which incorporates estimates of the Fed's future actions. 2s/10s also fail to measure up empirically, inverting even earlier than the habitually premature 3-month/10-year.
  • 4 August 16, 2017 Global ETF Strategy Special Report, "A Guide To Spotting And Weathering Bear Markets."