What impending recession? New survey shows most people think they will be better off next year

"The most scary thing out there is trade, starting with the consumer goods tariffs due to be applied on Dec. 15. If we don’t see those suspended, the consumer could face some new headwinds in 2020," one analyst cautioned.
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Wall Street believes trade policy is improving — but any furtherance of the tit-for-tat over tariffs will stifle the economy, traders said.Mark Lennihan / AP file

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By Martha C. White

Economists are beginning to predict a near-term economic future that, until recently, would have been considered inconceivable, or at the very least implausible: The idea that the more than decade-old bull market still has room to run.

A new survey from the National Association for Business Economics found that economic experts think there is less than a 50 percent chance that a recession will take place next year, and a roughly one-in-three chance that the economy will remain positive at least through mid-2021.

NABE survey panelists said there is a 21 percent of a recession taking place by the middle of next year, a 43 percent chance of recession by the end of next year, and a 34 percent chance that a recession won’t occur until after mid-2021 at the earliest.

In an interview with CNBC, Fidelity Investments director of global macro Jurrien Timmer suggested that the current state of the expansion could be, “a mini-reflation wave within an ongoing late cycle."

I think in many ways, the way the economy has evolved in the past 12 months has been more positive than expected,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com. “If you asked people at the beginning of the expansion if it would’ve lasted more than a decade, most people would have said not,” he said. “This is one of the consequences of slower growth for longer.”

Hamrick said the Federal Reserve reversing its rate-hiking trajectory and choosing instead to lower rates three times over the course of 2019 played a big role in reversing the market plunge that took place last December. “I think that is one thing that is huge and in many ways it was an admission by the Fed that it was wrong,” he said.

Another key component is the job market, according to experts. The NABE survey was conducted before Friday’s surprisingly strong jobs report, which found that the economy added a robust 266,000 jobs in November, higher than the 187,000 economists anticipated.

“The one thing that people point to all the time is the hiring component,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group. “I think that’s the real takeaway here. It’s more about the strength in hiring than anything else. As long as the labor market stays tight, then recession gets pushed off further and further,” he said.

“The most scary thing out there is trade, starting with the consumer goods tariffs due to be applied on Dec. 15. If we don’t see those suspended, the consumer could face some new headwinds in 2020."

Studies show that ordinary Americans’ sense of financial security is tightly tied to the job market, and a new Fidelity Investments survey conducted in October found that people also feel optimistic: More than three out of four of the more than 3,000 surveyed, including 85 percent of millennial and Gen Z respondents, said they think they will be better off financially next year than they have been this year.

Respondents’ evaluations of their current financial situations were positive, as well: 39 percent said they think they are in a better financial situation today compared to last year. Among millennials, that figure climbed to 46 percent. One in four said their finances had improved because they were working more hours; 23 percent said they got a new job or a promotion, and 15 percent said they received a bonus. Nearly half said they were saving more money.

The economy does face risks to continued growth, though.

“You don’t get recessions because an economic gradually shifts towards zero. It doesn’t go linearly,” said Paul Christopher, head of global market strategy at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute. Instead, it slows to the extent that economic shocks such as a spike in oil prices or geopolitical turbulence at home or abroad, events that a robust economy would be able to shake off, become catalysts for recession.

Chief among these risks is President Donald Trump’s trade war.

“The most scary thing out there is trade, starting with the consumer goods tariffs that are due to be applied on Dec. 15. Our expectation is still that the president has a lot of incentive to suspend those, but if we don’t see those suspended, we think the consumer could face some new headwinds in 2020,” Christopher said. “That’s a shock that worries me.”

“Markets believe trade policy is improving. If that’s not the case… then all bets are off,” Cox said. “The global economy has finally started to pick up a little bit, and a furtherance of the trade war will do nothing but stifle it.”