A Better Way to Anticipate Downturns
Credit markets, though harder to follow than equity markets, provide clearer signs of looming economic decline.
by Tim Koller
What executive isn’t challenged by the daily barrage of conflicting economic reports attempting to clarify the question of the hour: will the global recovery build or lapse into another recession? Indeed, executives around the world are evenly split on the topic.(1) And while the savviest executives and investors know better than to get caught up in the short-term fluctuations of the economy, many others, looking for evidence of longer-term trends, still fixate on movements in the equity markets.
They shouldn’t. The fact is that those markets, well analyzed as they are, don’t predict downturns effectively. Credit markets are a better place to look for signs of impending trouble, in no small part because they have been at the core of most financial crises and recessions for hundreds of years. Parsing the credit markets isn’t easy—there’s no single number remotely like a share price to monitor, and there are many moving parts. But for executives willing to take the time to understand the relationship between the financial and real economies, the credit markets can provide clearer indicators that a recession is on the horizon.
Collective wisdom falls short
Subscribers to the theory that markets process all information efficiently would argue that equity investors should be in very good shape to recognize early indications of a looming downturn. If that were indeed the case, current market valuations might inspire confidence. Our model of the equity markets suggests that their current levels in Europe and the United States are reasonably consistent with the intrinsic value of equities, given long-term profit trends and current rates of interest and inflation. And since equity markets do a reasonably good job of tracking long-term economic fundamentals,(2) investors can expect longer-term returns—dividends and share price appreciation—that are in line with historical real returns, in the range of 6 to 7 percent.