What 2015 will look like? The optimism in America stood in stark contrast to gloom elsewhere, as it does today. Japan’s economy had slipped into deflation in 1997. Germany was “the sick man of Europe”, its firms held back by rigid labour markets and other high costs. Emerging markets, having soared ahead, were in crisis: between 1997 and 1999 countries from Thailand to Brazil saw their currencies crash as foreign capital fled and dollar-denominated debts proved unpayable (see also: Finance , Taxes and Technology in 2015).
Recent economic history has been so dominated by the credit crunch of 2008-09 that it is easy to forget what happened in the decades before. But looking back 15 years or so is instructive–in terms of both what to do and what to avoid. In 1929, a businessman and economist by the name of Jerome Levy didn’t like what he saw in his analysis of corporate profits. He sold his stocks before the October crash.
Almost eight decades later, the consultancy company that bears his name declared “the next recession will be caused by the deflating housing bubble.” By February 2007, it predicted problems in the subprime-mortgage market would spread “to virtually all financial markets.” In October 2007, it saw imminent recession — the slump began two months later.
“Without first strengthening substantially, we think it highly unlikely that global financial stability will hold together long enough for the Fed to signal and execute a rate increase,” he said.
A financial crash in Russia; falling oil prices and a strong dollar; a new gold rush in Silicon Valley and a resurgent American economy; weakness in Germany and Japan; tumbling currencies in emerging markets from Brazil to Indonesia; an embattled Democrat in the White House. Is that a forecast of the world in 2015 or a portrait of the late 1990s?
Then, as now, the United States was in the vanguard of a disruptive digital revolution. The advent of the internet spawned a burst of innovation and euphoria about America’s prospects. By 1999 GDP was rising by more than 4% a year, almost twice the rich-country average. Unemployment fell to 4%, a 30-year low. Foreign investors piled in, boosting both the dollar and share prices. The S&P 500 index rose to almost 30 times earnings; tech stocks went wild.
The Jerome Levy Forecasting Center, based in Mount Kisco, New York, and run by Jerome’s grandson David, is again more worried than its peers. Its half-dozen analysts attach a 65 percent probability of a worldwide recession forcing a contraction in the U.S. by the end of next year.
The Jerome Levy Forecasting Center, based in Mount Kisco, New York, and run by Jerome’s grandson David, is again more worried than its peers. Its half-dozen analysts attach a 65 percent probability of a worldwide recession forcing a contraction in the U.S. by the end of next year. The upshot of the latest forecast is that even if a slump is avoided, the Federal Reserve will keep interest rates near zero until the next decade, according to Levy.
Eventually, America ran into trouble too. The tech-stock bubble burst in early 2000, prompting a broader share price slump. Business investment, particularly in technology, sank; and as share prices fell, consumers cut back. By early 2001 America, along with most of the rich world, had slipped into recession, albeit a mild one. That call runs counter to the forecasts of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The two banks posit an expansion that has plenty of room to run.
American companies also are getting a historically large proportion of earnings from abroad and households are vulnerable to any bear market because their ratio of stocks to disposable income is higher than at any point aside from the start of this century, he said. Why the gloom? Levy argues the U.S. and many advanced economies still have balance-sheet excesses exposing them to renewed financial crisis. There is limited room for policy makers to reverse any slump, and low inflation risks tipping into deflation in many parts of the world.
“Clearly the direction of most of the recent global economic news suggests movement toward a 2015 downturn,” chairman David Levy told clients in an Oct. 23 edition of a monthly forecasting report, which at over 60 years purports to be the oldest of its kind. While the U.S. is doing relatively well, Levy is worried that at about 13 percent of gross domestic product, U.S. exports represent their largest share ever. Granted, there have been some misfires. In September 2010, Levy told Bloomberg Television that he saw a 60 percent chance of another U.S. recession. Instead the world’s largest economy has gained in strength.