New research published last week by David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Alex Bryson of the University College London suggests that consumer expectations indexes from the Conference Board and the University of Michigan tend to predict economic downturns up to 18 months in advance in the U.S.
Every recession since the 1980s has been precipitated by at least a 10-point drop in the expectations indices, they found. Other reliable indicators include a single monthly rise of at least 0.3 percentage points in unemployment and two consecutive months of employment rate declines.
"The economic situation in 2021 is exceptional, however, since unprecedented direct government intervention in the labor market through furlough-type arrangements has enabled employment rates to recover quickly from the huge downturn in 2020," Blanchflower and Bryson wrote. "However, downward movements in consumer expectations in the last six months suggest the economy in the United States is entering recession now (Autumn 2021)."
The Conference Board’s gauge of expectations declined in September to the lowest since November last year, marking the third consecutive month of declines. At the same time, the University of Michigan's gauge actually increased last month.
The economists highlighted data suggesting the Conference Board expectations peaked in March 2021 and then fell by 26 points through September 2021. The Michigan data, meanwhile, likely peaked in June 2021 and fell by 18 points by August, they found.
The "clear downward movements in consumer expectations" over the past six months are evidence the U.S. is currently heading into a recession, the economists said. Although that's not reflected in the hiring situation – the unemployment rate is falling and the economy is adding jobs, albeit at a slower-than-expected pace – that's likely because the U.S. government has played a large role in propping up the labor market.
"It seems to us that there is every likelihood that the US is entered recession at the end of 2021," they wrote.