When everyone expects a soft landing, brace for impact. That’s the lesson of recent economic history — and it’s an uncomfortable one for the U.S. right now.
A summer in which inflation trended lower, jobs remained plentiful and consumers kept spending has bolstered confidence — not least at the Federal Reserve — that the world’s biggest economy will avoid recession.
A last-minute deal to avoid a government shutdown kicks one immediate risk a little further into the future. But a major auto strike, the resumption of student-loan repayments, and a shutdown that may yet come back after the stop-gap spending deal lapses, could easily shave a percentage point off GDP growth in the fourth quarter.
Add those shocks to other powerful forces at work on the economy — from dwindling pandemic savings to soaring interest rates and now oil prices too — and the combined impact could be enough to tip the U.S. into a downturn as early as this year.
Here are six reasons why a recession remains Bloomberg Economics’ base case. They range from the wiring of the human brain and the mechanics of monetary policy, to strikes, higher oil prices and a looming credit squeeze — not to mention the end of Taylor Swift’s concert tour.
The bottom line: history, and data, suggest the consensus has gotten a little too complacent — just as it did before every U.S. downturn of the past four decades.
Soft landing calls always precede recessions
“The most likely outcome is that the economy will move forward toward a soft landing.” So said then-San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen in October 2007, just two months before the Great Recession began. Yellen wasn’t alone in her optimism. With alarming regularity, soft landing calls peak before hard landings hit.
Why do economists find it so difficult to anticipate recessions? One reason is simply the way forecasting works. It typically assumes that what happens next in the economy will be some kind of extension of what’s already happened — a linear process, in the jargon. But recessions are non-linear events. The human mind isn’t good at thinking about them.
Here’s an example that focuses on unemployment, a key gauge of the economy’s health. The Fed’s latest forecast is for the jobless rate to edge higher from 3.8% in 2023 to 4.1% in 2024, That’s a continuation of the current trend, and one that would see the U.S. skirting a recession.
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