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Market Volatility
Guide to Recessions: 9 key things you need to know
Jared Franz
Darrell Spence

How bad will the next recession be?

That’s one of the questions we hear most often, especially now as the U.S. Federal Reserve aggressively hikes interest rates to rein in inflation at 40-year highs. It seems clear to us that the U.S. will enter a recession by early 2023, if it hasn’t already. Our expectation is that it will be less damaging than the 2008 global financial crisis, but the full extent of the economic impact won’t be known for some time.

Since 1970, Canada has experienced recessions at approximately the same time as the U.S., demonstrating the interconnectedness of the two economies. Although current signs also point to a Canadian recession on the horizon, it’s worth noting that the country has escaped some previous U.S. recessions. In 2001, there was a short-lived recession in the U.S. following the bursting of the internet bubble. The Canadian economy, in contrast, experienced only a one-quarter dip of 0.1% in real GDP (gross domestic product) despite three straight quarters of reduced exports to the U.S. Final domestic Canadian demand rose steadily, buoyed by, and lending support to, higher employment throughout the year. 

There may also be regional recessions that may bring pain to certain provinces but do not pull the entire Canadian economy into a recession. A decline in oil prices could, for instance, trigger a recession in energy-resources dependent Alberta, but have minimal impact on Ontario where manufacturing is the key driver of economic growth.  

To help you prepare for these uncertain times, we researched 70 years of data including the last 11 economic downturns to distill our top insights and answer key questions about recessions:

1. What is a recession?

A recession is commonly defined as at least two consecutive quarters of declining GDP after a period of growth, although that isn’t enough on its own. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which is responsible for business cycle dating, defines recessions as "a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production and wholesale-retail sales." In this guide, we will use NBER’s official dates.

In Canada, the government is responsible for determining when the economy has entered and exited a recession. The announcement comes from the Bank of Canada or minister of finance, based on data provided by Statistics Canada and input from economic think tanks such as the Toronto-based C.D. Howe Institute. Its Business Cycle Council plays a role similar to NBER as the council meets on an annual basis, or as warranted when economic conditions indicate the possibility of entry to or exit from a recession. The council relies on three dimensions to determine a recession — duration, amplitude and scope (how widespread the downturn is). Further, the council assigns categories of severity to Canada’s recessions, rating them like hurricanes, from Category 1 to Category 5, with the latter being the most severe. 

In a June announcement, the council acknowledged that it’s difficult to say a recession is 100% certain, but advised Canadians to prepare for one based on current economic forecasting. 

2. What causes recessions?

Past recessions have occurred for many reasons, but typically are the result of economic imbalances that, ultimately, need to be corrected. For example, the 2008 recession was caused by excess debt in the housing market, while the 2001 contraction was caused by an asset bubble in technology stocks. An unexpected shock such as the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread enough to damage corporate profits and trigger job cuts, also can be responsible.

When unemployment rises, consumers typically reduce spending, which further pressures economic growth, company earnings and stock prices. These factors can fuel a vicious cycle that topples an economy. Although they can be painful to live through, recessions are a natural and necessary means of clearing out excesses before the next economic expansion. As Capital Group vice chair Rob Lovelace recently noted, “You can’t have such a sustained period of growth without an occasional downturn to balance things out. It’s normal. It’s expected. It’s healthy.”

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3. How long do recessions last?

The good news is that recessions generally haven’t lasted very long in the U.S. Our analysis of 11 cycles since 1950 shows that recessions have persisted between two and 18 months, with the average spanning about 10 months. For those directly affected by job loss or business closures, that can feel like an eternity. But investors with a long-term investment horizon would be better served looking at the full picture.

Recessions are painful, but expansions have been powerful

The chart shows cumulative U.S. GDP growth of each expansion and recession since 1950. The expansions shown have a much higher magnitude and length compared to the recessions. A table shows that the average expansion lasts 69 months, has 24.6% GDP growth and adds 12 million net jobs. The average recession lasts 10 months, has –2.5% GDP growth and eliminates 3.9 million net jobs.

Sources: Capital Group, National Bureau of Economic Research, Refinitiv Datastream. Chart data is latest available as of 8/31/22 and shown on a logarithmic scale. The expansion that began in 2020 is still considered current as of 8/31/22 and is not included in the average expansion summary statistics. Since NBER announces recession start and end months, rather than exact dates, we have used month-end dates as a proxy for calculations of jobs added. Nearest quarter-end values used for GDP growth rates.

Recessions have been relatively small blips in economic history. Over the last 70 years, the U.S. has been in an official recession less than 15% of all months. Moreover, their net economic impact has been relatively small. The average expansion increased economic output by almost 25%, whereas the average recession reduced GDP by 2.5%. 

In Canada, it’s a similar story, with an additional observation from the C.D. Howe Institute Business Cycle Council: since 1926 recessions have become more exceptional events over time, evolving to become less frequent but more severe in nature.  

Equity returns south and north of the border can even be positive over the full length of a contraction since some of the strongest stock rallies have occurred during the late stages of a recession.

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Get the Guide to Recessions e-book

4. What happens to the stock market during a recession?

The exact timing of a recession is hard to predict, but it’s still wise to think about how one could affect your portfolio. Bear markets (market declines of 20% or more) and recessions (economic declines) have often overlapped — with equities leading the economic cycle by six to seven months on the way down and again on the way up.

Equities have typically peaked months before a recession, but can bounce back quickly

The chart shows two lines comparing the average S&P 500 Index market cycle and the average economic cycle (using industrial production as a proxy). The S&P 500 market cycle has peaked several months before the economic cycle, and it also started accelerating from its bottom several months before the economic cycle.

Sources: Capital Group, U.S. Federal Reserve Board, Haver Analytics, National Bureau of Economic Research, Standard & Poor's. Data reflects the average change in the S&P 500 Index and economic activity (using industrial production as a proxy) of all completed economic cycles from 1950 to 2021. The "cycle peak" refers to the highest level of economic activity in each cycle before the economy begins to contract. Both lines are indexed to 100 at each economic cycle peak and also indexed to 0 "months before/after cycle peak" on the x-axis. A negative number (left of the cycle peak) reflects the average change in each line in the months leading up to the cycle peak. The positive numbers (right of the cycle peak) indicate the average changes after the cycle peak. Based in USD.

Still, aggressive market-timing moves, such as shifting an entire portfolio into cash, can backfire. Some of the strongest returns can occur during the late stages of an economic cycle or immediately after a market bottom. A dollar cost averaging strategy, in which investors systematically invest equal amounts at regular intervals, can be beneficial in down markets. This approach can allow investors to purchase more shares at lower prices while remaining positioned for when the market eventually rebounds.

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5. What economic indicators can warn of a recession?

Wouldn’t it be great to know ahead of time when a recession is coming? Despite the impossibility of pinpointing the exact start of a recession, there are some generally reliable signals worth watching closely in a late-cycle economy.

The table shows five economic indicators that can warn of a recession, the average number of months between the signal and the start of a recession, and the current status of the indicator. Indicator #1 — An inverted yield curve, which occurs when 10-year yields fall below two-year yields. The average time between this signal and recession is 14.5 months. The threshold has been met. Indicator #2 — Unemployment rate rising from cycle trough. The average time between this signal and recession is 5.6 months. The threshold has not been met. Indicator #3 — Consumer confidence declining from the previous year. The average time between this signal and recession is 2.9 months. The threshold has been met. Indicator #4 — Housing starts declining at least 10% from the previous year. The average time between this signal and a recession is 5.3 months. The threshold has not been met. Indicator #5 — The Leading Economic Index (LEI) declining at least 1% from the previous year. The average time between this signal and a recession is 3.6 months. The threshold has not been met.

Source: Capital Group. Reflects latest data available as of 8/31/22.

Many factors can contribute to a recession, and the main causes often change. Therefore, it’s helpful to look at several different aspects of the economy to better assess where excesses and imbalances may be building. Keep in mind that any indicator should be viewed more as a mile marker than a distance-to-destination sign.

Four examples of economic indicators that can warn of a recession include the yield curve, unemployment rate, consumer sentiment and housing starts. Aggregated metrics, such as The Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI), which combines 10 different economic and financial signals into a single analytic system to predict peaks and troughs, have also been consistently reliable over time.

These factors suggest the U.S. is in a late part of the economic cycle and moving closer to a recession, even as the labour market remains relatively resilient. New economic data can quickly change the story though.

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6. Are we in a recession?

While it may feel like we’re already in one, we believe an official recession is still unlikely until later this year or early 2023. Despite the impact that high inflation has had on consumer sentiment and corporate earnings, a strong labour market continues to support the economy in the near term.

The likelihood of a U.S. recession rose sharply in recent months

The chart shows a line tracking the New York Fed’s probability of a U.S. recession within 12 months since 1962. It also shows when past recessions occurred and a 30% threshold which has been reached before every recession. The probability has been increasing in recent months and reached 17% in August 2022.

Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Refnitiv Datastream. As of 8/31/22. Shaded bars represent U.S. recessions as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The exact timing will likely depend on the pace and magnitude of the Fed’s moves. It is hard to see a clear path to bring inflation back to the Fed’s 2% target without pushing the economy into recession. In our view, the only way to break the spiral of escalating wages and prices is to create a lot of slack in the labour market. The unemployment rate may need to rise to at least 5% or 6% before wage growth starts to moderate. We believe this will make a recession very difficult to avoid by 2023.

The above equally applies to Canada where the central bank is most concerned about inflation remaining high and broadening, as this may lead to a de-anchoring of inflation expectations. De-anchored inflation expectations lead firms to set prices even higher. Similarly, in response to higher expected inflation, workers may bargain for persistently higher wage growth to protect against anticipated losses in purchasing power. The resulting stronger wage growth feeds into production costs and prompts firms to raise prices further. This process boosts inflation expectations, perpetuating the spiral. In its Monetary Policy Report released in July, the Bank of Canada detailed the risks of de-anchored inflation expectations stating it may require interest rates to rise higher and longer than currently projected, which significantly elevates the risk of recession in 2023. 

Geopolitical shocks — such as an escalation in the war in Ukraine — or the consequences of a recession overseas are even harder to predict but could quicken the timeline for U.S. and Canadian recessions.

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7. How should you position your stock portfolio for a recession?

We’ve already established that equities often do poorly during recessions but trying to time the market by selling stocks is not suggested. So should investors do nothing? Certainly not.

To prepare, investors should take the opportunity to review their overall asset allocation, which may have changed significantly during the bull market, to ensure their portfolio is balanced and diversified. Consulting a financial advisor can help immensely since these can be emotional decisions for many investors.

Through 10 declines, some sectors have finished above the overall market

The chart shows how many times each of the sectors in the S&P 500 have outpaced the index during the last 10 largest market declines between 1987 and 2022. Consumer staples outpaced 10 times; utilities and health care outpaced nine times; telecommunication services outpaced eight times; energy outpaced five times; materials outpaced four times; consumer discretionary, financials and information technology each outpaced three times; and industrials outpaced twice. The chart also shows that the sectors that beat the market index during declines, on average, had higher dividend yields than those that usually lagged the index during declines.

*In September 2018, the telecommunication services sector was renamed communication services, and its company composition was materially changed. The dividend yield shown is for the telecommunication services industry group, a subset of the newly constructed communication services sector.

Sources: Capital Group, FactSet. Includes the last 10 periods that the S&P 500 Index declined by more than 15% on a total return basis. Sector returns for 1987 are equally weighted, using index constituents from 1989, the earliest available data set. The 2022 bear market is still considered current as of 8/31/22 and is included in this analysis. Dividend yields are as of 8/31/22. Based in USD.

Not all stocks respond the same during periods of economic stress. In the eight largest equity declines between 1987 and 2019, some sectors held up more consistently than others — usually those with higher dividends such as consumer staples and utilities. Dividends can offer steady return potential when stock prices are broadly declining.

Growth-oriented stocks can still have a place in portfolios, but investors may want to consider companies with strong balance sheets, consistent cash flows and long growth runways that can withstand short-term volatility.

Even in a recession, many companies may remain profitable. Focus on companies with products and services that people will continue to use every day such as telecom, utilities and food manufacturers with pricing power.  

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8. How should you position your bond portfolio for a recession?

Fixed income is often key to successful investing during a recession or bear market. That’s because bonds can provide an essential measure of stability and capital preservation, especially when equity markets are volatile.

The market selloff in the first half of 2022 was unique in that many bonds did not play their typical safe-haven role. But in the seven previous market corrections, bonds — as measured by the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Index — rose four times and never declined more than 1% in U.S. dollars. 

High-quality bonds have shown resilience when stock markets are unsettled

The chart shows returns for the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Index and the S&P 500 Index during nine recent stock market corrections. The periods include the Flash Crash in 2010, the U.S. debt downgrade in 2011, the China slowdown in 2015, the oil price shock in 2015-16, the U.S. inflation and rates scare in early 2018, the global selloff in late 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, and Fed rate hikes in 2022. In all periods the S&P 500 declined at least 10% and by as much as –33.8%. In these same periods, the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index had returns ranging between –5.6% and 5.4%.

Sources: Bloomberg Index Services Ltd., RIMES, Standard & Poor's. Dates shown for market corrections are based on price declines of 10% or more (without dividends reinvested) in the S&P 500 with at least 50% recovery persisting for more than one business day between declines. Includes all completed corrections between 1/1/10 and 8/31/22. Returns are based on total returns in USD. Past results are not predictive of results in future periods.

Achieving the right fixed income allocation is always important. But with the U.S. and Canadian economies entering a period of uncertainty, it’s especially critical for investors to focus on core bond holdings that can provide balance to portfolios. Investors don’t necessarily need to increase their bond allocation ahead of a recession, but they should review their fixed income exposure with their financial professionals to be sure it is positioned to provide diversification from equities, income, capital preservation and inflation protection — what we consider the four key roles fixed income can play in a well-diversified portfolio.

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9. What should you do to prepare for a recession?

Above all else, investors should stay calm when investing ahead of and during a recession. Emotions can be one of the biggest roadblocks to strong investment returns, and this is particularly true during periods of economic and market stress.

If you’ve picked up anything from reading this guide, it’s probably that determining the exact start or end date of a recession is not only impossible, but also not that critical. What is more important is to maintain a long-term perspective and make sure your portfolio is designed to be balanced enough to benefit from periods of potential growth before it happens, while being resilient during those inevitable periods of volatility.

Jared Franz is an economist with 17 years of industry experience (as of 12/31/2022). He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Northwestern University.

Darrell R. Spence covers the United States as an economist and has 30 years of industry experience (as of 12/31/2022). He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Occidental College. He also holds the Chartered Financial Analyst® designation and is a member of the National Association for Business Economics.

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