The historic bull market faces off against steel tariffs

March 13, 2018 08:47 AM

A Recession in the Near Term Doesn’t Look Likely

Despite some of the negativity, I see no cause for alarm with regard to the U.S. economy. The country added a whopping 313,000 jobs in February, the most since July 2016 and the 89th straight month of gains—a new record. Economists had anticipated only 200,000. Earlier, Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi called the job market “red hot,” adding that with “government spending increases and tax cuts, growth is set to accelerate” even more.

One of the most historically reliable economic indicators currently looks very healthy. The Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) opened 2018 on sure footing, posting a 108.1 in January, up a full percent from the previous month. The reading reflects “an economy with widespread strengths coming from financial conditions, manufacturing, residential construction and labor markets,” the Conference Board writes.   

According to FactSet, a record number of S&P 500 companies have issued positive earnings per share (EPS) guidance for 2018. The financial data firm classifies positive guidance as an EPS estimate that’s higher than the mean estimate before the guidance was issued. As many as 127 companies shared positive EPS guidance for the year, more than double the 10-year average of 49 companies for the same period. FactSet attributes this optimism to tax reform, an improving global economy and weaker U.S. dollar.

And it’s not just large S&P 500 companies that are feeling confident. January’s Small Business Optimism Index found that a record percentage of small business owners are eager to expand. Thirty-two percent of owners said that “now is a good time to expand,” the highest such reading in the survey’s 45-year history.

Could Fertility Be a Leading Economic Indicator?

On a final note, a new study lends additional credibility to the theory of “wisdom of crowds,” which states that large groups of people are smarter and better at analyzing data than an elite few. In one recent example, I showed you how investors accurately predicted the election of Donald Trump as far back as July 2016.

But could declining fertility rates predict the next recession? A team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame thinks so, and they have some compelling evidence to support their idea.

Granted, there’s nothing unique about the idea that birth rates drop during and after economic downturns. Married couples have tended to put off expanding their families when they see friends and neighbors being laid off and a greater number of foreclosed homes in their neighborhoods.

What makes this study worth discussing is that it suggests conceptions, those that result in live births, noticeably begin to drop months before a recession strikes. This pattern, according to the study’s authors, can be observed in recessions beginning in 1990 and 2001, as well as the Great Recession.

Above, you can see the percent change in conception rates tumbled sharply some time before GDP growth began to stall or even reverse course. Conception, then, could be used to anticipate recessions just as well as any other economic indicator.

In fact, conception rates could end up being even more accurate “in situations where employment significantly lags the overall economy, and where conceptions lead the economy,” the authors write.

So how are families able to anticipate and act on economic trends more reliably than professional economists? Again, the wisdom of crowds prevails. Everyday people no doubt sense the tremors before the earthquake by hearing things in their firms and comparing observations with friends and acquaintances. There’s no way to quantify this, of course, but live birth records in the U.S. are readily available.

You might be wondering what the data tells us about the economy’s health in the near term. Sadly, the study makes no mention of this. But in January, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. fertility rates fell to 62 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2017—a new all-time low.

Before you begin to panic, though, it’s important to know that there are different ways to measure fertility, which could skew the data. Also, the drop in fertility could just be further evidence that young adults are choosing to delay starting a family.

Regardless of the rate, people will continue to have babies, increasing the need for even more raw materials and resources.

 

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About the Author

Frank Holmes is CEO and chief investment officer of US Global Investors. This first appeared in his Frank Talk blog. For more updates on global investing from Frank and the rest of the U.S. Global Investors team, follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/USFunds or like on Facebook at www.facebook.com/USFunds.