Why My Recession Rule Could Go Wrong This Time

Alarm bells sounded Friday when we learned that the US unemployment rate rose to 3.9% for October, well above the 50-year low of 3.4% that it hit earlier in the year. The latest reading is still very low, so what’s with the doomsayers telling us a recession has arrived?

Relatively small increases in the unemployment rate, even starting from low levels, typically signal a recession. Where we are now is insufficient to make that call, but it’s worrisome. How do I know? Before the pandemic, I developed a highly accurate recession indicator, later named the Sahm rule. It would have triggered early in every recession since 1970. But it has not triggered now.

The Sahm rule is simple. If the three-month average of the unemployment rate (the monthly rate often bounces around too much) is half a percentage point or more above its low in the prior 12 months, the economy is in a recession. The current value is 0.33 percentage point, so it’s highly unlikely that we are in a recession - at least for now.

Turning Higher

Even so, the unemployment rate has risen, threatening to trigger a negative feedback loop of further unemployment that leads to a recession. When workers lose paychecks, they cut back on spending, and as businesses lose customers, they need fewer workers, and so on. Currently, the signals are mixed: the hiring rate has fallen below pre-pandemic levels, while the firing rate remains low. And growth in consumer spending, even after accounting for inflation, has been strong this year.

Mixed Signals