After a financial crisis, recessions are worse than average

Not all recessions are the same. Most recessions are a manifestation of the business cycle. But, when a recession is the result of a crisis in the financial sector, things get much worse.

What does that mean for investors? It means this is a once or twice in a lifetime opportunity to buy equities at very low prices. This opportunity may exist for some time, but trying to predict when markets will recover is a losing proposition. Get invested now and keep some cash on hand in case things get significantly worse.

A recent paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, called “The Aftermath of Financial Crises,” provides support for the view that recessions following a financial crisis are worse than average.

In their paper, they show that asset markets collapse more deeply and for a longer time period. Real (after inflation) housing prices collapse an average of 35% over 6 years. Equity prices collapse by 55% over 3 1/2 years. Unemployment rises an average of 7% over 4 years. Output falls 9% over 2 years. The real value of government debt explodes.

The average recession lasts 10 months. Using that average, we would have come out of this recession last October because we entered it in December of 2007. As I’m sure you know by now, that didn’t happen. In fact, the recession hit high gear around that time.

Averages are not a proper expectation for what will happen. If you stuck your head in an oven and your feet in a freezer, your average temperature would be comfortable, but I guarantee you’d be miserable. Averages can be deceiving and misused.

But, averages can be useful for gauging what could happen. My intention here is to prepare you for the downside and how rough this ride will be, not to predict what will happen or when.

Asset markets have been down around 40%, so getting to down 55% would require another 25% decline from the down 40% level. I wouldn’t be surprised to see markets go significantly lower, but that’s impossible to predict. A decline to the 55% level, or even the 90% level like the Great Depression, is likely to be very short lived. The best thing to do is be prepared for the downside while acknowledging that the upside for equities from here is extraordinarily good. Try to pick the bottom is a fool’s errand.

We’re only a year and a half into the housing price decline, but this market was unusually over-valued at the top, so I expect it to end up more than 35% down. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see this last shorter than it has historically because of how rapidly it declined and how actively the government is intervening.

Unemployment bottomed around 4.4%, so it would have to get over 11% to reach historical average. The rate is around 7.2% currently, so we are well on our way there. Remember, unemployment is a lagging indicator. It will almost certainly hit its peak long after the markets and economy are recovering.

Output has only started to fall, and getting to the down 9% level will be painful. Like with employment, this will be a lagging indicator. By the time we see it recovering, markets will almost certainly be up significantly.

Government debt is already ballooning and will continue to do so. Government officials are already calling for a $1.2 trillion deficit this year, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. When an institution issues a lot of debt, even the U.S. government, their cost of debt will go up. Be prepared for higher interest rates and inflation. This may take years to develop, but when it does it will be truly life-changing.

Recessions following financial crises are deeper and longer lasting than average. It looks like we’re in such a situation. Be prepared for the downside. Be prepared for a lot of negative news going forward. But, most importantly, get invested to take advantage of the recovery and be prepared for even lower prices–in case they happen–in the future.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.