By Lisa Shalett, Morgan Stanley

The chances of a recession ticked higher recently, driven by the Federal Reserve’s latest rate hike and hawkish forward guidance.

The good news: If it does come to pass, a recession today is likely to be shallower and less damaging to corporate earnings than recent downturns. Here’s why.

Inflation-driven vs. Credit-driven recessions

Aside from the pandemic-induced 2020 recession, other recent recessions have been credit-driven, including the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 and the dot-com bust of 2000-2001. In those cases, debt-related excesses built up in housing and internet infrastructure, and it took nearly a decade for the economy to absorb them.

By contrast, excess liquidity, not debt, is the most likely catalyst for a recession today. In this case, extreme levels of COVID-related fiscal and monetary stimulus pumped money into households and investment markets, contributing to inflation and driving speculation in financial assets.

The difference is important for investors. Historically, damage to corporate earnings tends to be more modest during inflation-driven recessions. For example, during the inflation-driven recessions of both 1982-1983, when the Fed raised its policy rate to 20%, and 1973-1974, when the rate reached 11%, S&P 500 profits fell 14% and 15%, respectively. This compares with profit declines of 57% during the Great Financial Crisis and 32% during the tech crash.

Fundamentals Are Stronger

Beyond historical trends, several economic factors point to a less severe recession, should one come to pass:

1. The housing and auto industries are strong

Housing prices have been high and resilient, while inventories are tight and could fall even further with higher interest rates. For autos, production rates are below prior peaks due to semiconductor shortages. As supply chains clear, order backlogs could keep manufacturing activity uncharacteristically high for a recession.

2. Labor-market dynamics remain robust

Not only is the labor market tight, as defined by unemployment rates, but it is also showing record-high ratios of new job openings to potential applicants. This suggests that, rather than laying off current employees, companies may first reduce their open job postings, potentially delaying the hit to unemployment.

3. Balance sheets are in the best shape in decades

Moreover, catalysts for corporate capital spending appear strong, given current needs around energy infrastructure, automation and national defense that are not directly linked to the business cycle nor the Fed’s actions.

4. Corporate revenues may be more durable

Today’s stock-index composition shows a growing share of earnings attributed to recurring revenue streams, as more companies build subscription- and fee-based models.

In short, we are positive about the economy’s fundamentals and believe they can provide ballast in the event of a recession. Nonetheless, the bear-market bottom for stocks may still be 5%-10% away.

Investors should remain patient and consider using tax-efficient rebalancing, including by harvesting losses, to neutralize their major overweight and underweight exposures. And, as we continue to emphasize, pursue maximum asset-class diversification.


About LRPC’s Monday Morning Minute

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) Monday Morning Minute is crafted to provide decision-makers with important information about the economy, investments and corporate retirement plans in a format that allows a reader to consume the information in less than 60 seconds. As an independent, objective investment adviser, LRPC has access to many sources of research and shares the best and most relevant information with its readers each week.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to employer retirement plan sponsors. The firm specializes in sustainable investment strategies for retirement plans that incorporate Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) factors and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) elements. LRPC currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than a half billion dollars in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or or visit the firm’s website at Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, a plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.