What they may not appreciate is that an economy isn’t always susceptible to shocks. Rather, it needs to be in a cyclical “window of vulnerability” for a negative shock to tip it into recession.
Going into the coronavirus crisis, the dozen-plus key leading indexes we monitor told us that the US economy wasn’t in a window of vulnerability. Therefore, the shock of the epidemic hitting US shores wasn’t going to tip the economy into a recession.
Paradoxically, the US industrial sector has lucked out in another way. Most don’t appreciate that the US industrial downturn through last year left a number of industries with bloated inventories of raw materials and in-process goods, as well as overstocks of finished goods.
This is why manufacturing is mostly okay for now. Of course, that won’t remain the case if the supply chain disruptions keep going for months due to the coronavirus and those excess inventories become seriously depleted.
Separately, the US-China trade war may also have helped by persuading manufacturers to move supply chains out of China. That is currently cushioning the impact of the supply chain disruptions, buying us a little time before manufacturing gets seriously hit.
Services could be more vulnerable to the coronavirus threat. This is because many service-sector activities may be curbed by government and private firms shutting down workplaces as a precautionary measure. Moreover, discretionary spending — especially on services that involve human contact — will be hurt by people’s fears of being infected by the virus.
Of course, such damage could last longer if people have doubts about official pronouncements. Here, trust is the key. Otherwise, the hit to the economy can drag on for months on end — and that could be recessionary.
The point remains that none of these potential problems can be solved by a Fed rate cut.
One might say that the Fed had no choice, having been boxed in by the markets. But Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has plainly said that it’s ultimately up to others — primarily medical professionals and, secondarily, fiscal policymakers — to solve the real problem.
Going into this epidemic, the US economy was not particularly vulnerable to recession and, despite all of the drama in the markets, it still isn’t. But when our forward-looking indexes, including several high-frequency indicators, signal that we’re moving into a recessionary window of vulnerability, the Fed will need to act.
That’s what “Japanification” looks like: slow growth with repeated recessionary episodes. And the Fed has just stepped on the gas on the road to Japanification.