Key Points

  • Investors are wise to look at more granular classifications of the business cycle and not just relatively infrequent NBER recessions.
  • Yield-curve slopes and equity market returns can be used as nowcasting signals to identify turning points of the business cycle.
  • Market signals are implying a number of developed markets—notably, Japan, the United States, and Germany—are now entering the correction phase of the business cycle. Trade wars, Brexit, debt issues in Italy and Spain, and political problems in Germany and Italy can make the road ahead a lot bumpier than the road we have grown accustomed to.

The three most common expressions in aviation are: Why is it doing that? Where are we? and Oh crap! – Anonymous

As in aviation, the questions “Why is it doing that?” and “Where are we?” also happen to be very commonly posed by economists and market watchers. For the most part, we never truly know where we are in an economic cycle until after the fact. By that time, if anything meaningful has changed, it’s usually an “Oh crap” moment for investors. Due to the delayed nature of many economic indicators, over the last few years nowcasting has become part of the investment lexicon, especially for market participants looking to get a leg up on the competition and in their own portfolios.

In this article, we show how simple and easy-to-access market fundamentals can be used in real time to identify multiple stages in the business cycles of developed economies, going beyond the usual narrow characterization of recessions. Indeed, for the purpose of investing, we must look at all business-cycle states, not just those identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the entity responsible for dating US recessions, whose motivations may not align with the needs of investors. Hence, we review evidence from bond and equity markets as useful descriptors across all major business-cycle stages. Furthermore, we take a global perspective by applying our findings across 14 major developed markets.

Our evidence shows that bond yields and equity returns can provide clarity as to the current phase of the business cycle, especially during transient states when economies tend to turn the corner on the next phase. Specifically, the slope of the yield curve tends to peak when an economy is rebounding after a recession, and it flattens or inverts when economic growth loses momentum. We also find that equity returns can be used as a second predictor to further refine the identification of the business-cycle stage. These results paired with the most recent market trends imply that a number of major developed markets may be currently entering the correction phase of the business cycle, producing above-potential output, but in the midst of a slowing economy. The good news is that not all corrections turn into fully fledged recessions; the bad news is that the road ahead may be bumpier than what we have grown accustomed to over the last few years.