Checking in on the post-WWII playbook
As we find ourselves at the end of 2022, we are revisiting some of our Investor Essentials Daily articles from this year that stuck out for one reason or another.
Today’s article was the first in a series we ran over the summer comparing the current economy to what happened post-WWII. From 1945 through 1950, we saw raging inflation, surging interest rates, a low-unemployment recession, and the start of one of the strongest bull markets ever.
We’re starting with 1945 below. Then, you can take a look at what happened in 1946, 1947 and 1948, 1949, and beyond.
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According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession is a “significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy for more than a few months.” That’s a pretty loose definition.
There are so many factors that play into a recession… like gross domestic product (“GDP”), consumer spending, employment, and household income—just to name a few. All of these components could lead to a “significant decline in economic activity.”
That adds a level of complexity to determining if we’re in a recession. So most people look to the traditional sign that a downturn is on the horizon – two consecutive quarters of negative real GDP growth.
And it looks like we’re currently setting up for that.
Real GDP growth was -1.6% in the first quarter. Thanks to inflation, it’s entirely possible that this number will be negative again for the second quarter. As it takes so long for the numbers to come in, it’s impossible to know if a recession is happening until it’s already too late.
But for many people, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a recession…
Without looking at GDP growth in the last two quarters or the market, most people’s day-to-day life might not have changed as much as expected in a downturn.
That is because the economy is actually doing quite well.
Employment is strong. Consumer demand is healthy. We haven’t seen widespread credit issues.
In short, we’re only in a “recession” based on its narrow definition (assuming we’re in one at all).
Nominal GDP was 6% last quarter. That’s a GDP metric based on current market prices. It remains strong… and as we already mentioned, employment is healthy as the Federal Reserve raises rates.
We’ve seen a setup like this before.
History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. We may be following a similar playbook to the 1945 recession.
At the time, real U.S. GDP was negative because the government cut spending as WWII ended.
During the war, we were producing beyond our maximum potential GDP. It was “all hands on deck” for a time, but our production was unsustainable. Said another way, GDP had nowhere to go but down.
The cut in spending simply brought GDP back down to its maximum potential.
Even as soldiers flooded back into the U.S. and started hunting for jobs, unemployment was just 1.9%. Again, this was during a “recession.”
In fact, the market kept on rallying throughout the 1945 recession. The market understood why GDP declined… and what was really happening.
These days, 2022 looks a lot like 1945.
Back then, the country was emerging from WWII. Now, we’re coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, the government threw the kitchen sink at the economy. Between Main Street Lending, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, and multiple waves of stimulus checks, the powers that be did everything they could to keep the economy humming.
But now, it has been about a year since the stimulus ended. The year-over-year comparisons aren’t looking as good… much like when we wound down production and things returned to normal in 1945.
We’ve already recorded one quarter of negative real GDP growth, and another seems to be looming. Despite this, the economy looks strong. Businesses are recovering. Employment figures are encouraging.
Even during the 1945 recession, the market shrugged off the headline print. Instead, investors focused on fundamentals. It took another year for the market to even blink at what was going on in the economy… and by then, the recession was long over.
Joel Litman & Rob Spivey
Chief Investment Strategist &
Director of Research
at Valens Research