Are We in a Recession? Who Cares?

Is the United States mired in a recession? Warren Buffett certainly thinks so. In a recent interview on CNBC, Buffett admitted that although the current economic conditions may not meet the technical definition, "by any commonsense definition, we are in a recession."

And if we aren't in a recession already, Yale professor Robert Shiller believes we'll be in one soon enough. In a recent interview, Shiller told The Times that the American real estate sector has "trillions of dollars' worth of losses" yet to come, and it could plunge the U.S. into a "Japan-style slump."

Don't tell that to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Although Paulson admits the economic outlook is challenging, he says "the economy and the markets are strong enough to absorb" rising credit losses, and he remains confident that rate cuts and rebates will ward off a recession.

When three experts offer three different opinions, it's difficult to know whom to trust. So here's my advice: Ignore them all.

Seriously, ignore them all
Suppose Shiller's correct, and the U.S. is headed for a recession. Or maybe Buffett has it right, and we're already there. Does it ultimately matter? Should you alter your stock selection process? Should you sell off your stock holdings in favor of government bonds?

Just what the heck is a recession, and what does it mean for stocks? The answers may surprise you.

What goes up must come down
A recession is the period between a peak of economic activity and a trough. Recessions typically last between six and 18 months, and they're a perfectly natural part of the business cycle.

To determine whether the economy is in recession, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) analyzes changes in factors such as gross domestic product, personal income, employment, industrial production, and retail sales volume. There is no fixed rule for how the different indicators are weighed.

But there is a significant delay
It takes time for the NBER to collect and analyze this economic data. By the time it's determined that the country is in a recession, odds are that the economy is already close to recovering. For example, the last trough in economic activity occurred in November 2001 -- but the NBER didn't make that determination until July 2003. By that time, the economy had been improving for more than a year and a half!

Wait, stocks can go up in a recession?
Since 1945, there have been 11 recessions lasting an average of 10 months each. But according to a recent article from Mark Hulbert, during these recessions, the stock market actually rose seven times -- and the average market return during all 11 recessions was 3%!

Those who ignore the past ...
During the 2001 recession, the S&P 500 fell about 12%. However, this was largely due to the abysmal performance of a few technology companies:

 

Closing Price
March 1, 2001

Closing Price
Nov. 1, 2001

Change

Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM  )

$32.00

$24.89

(22.2%)

Novell (Nasdaq: NOVL  )

$6.31

$3.71

(41.2%)

Sapient (Nasdaq: SAPE  )

$13.00

$4.19

(67.8%)

Meanwhile, quality companies with strong balance sheets, solid free cash flow, and shareholder-friendly management actually prospered during this period:

 

Closing Price
March 1, 2001

Closing Price
Nov. 1, 2001

Change

Avon Products (NYSE: AVP  )

$18.11

$21.30

17.6%

General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  )

$30.16

$38.18

26.6%

Quest Diagnostics (NYSE: DGX  )

$24.60

$32.76

33.2%

Heads you win, tails you still win
Here's how to silence the noise: Concentrate on finding the types of stocks that will perform well in any economic environment. At our Motley Fool Stock Advisor investing service, Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner advise investors not to try to time the market or forecast the next recession.

Rather, they suggest that you invest only in quality companies with strong balance sheets, solid free cash flow, and shareholder-friendly management. And fortunately, thanks to fears of an impending economic slowdown, many quality companies are available on the cheap.  

Consider Stock Advisor pick Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) , currently down 22% from its 52-week high. Netflix has 8.2 million subscribers, a brilliant business model, and more than 2 billion movie ratings on its customer-friendly website. Just this week, the company unveiled an exciting new device that will allow users to stream movies and TV shows directly to their televisions.

Netflix has quadrupled its revenue over the last four years, has nearly $300 million in cash versus zero debt, and generates some serious free cash flow. The company is led by its passionate founder, who draws a reasonable salary and owns a substantial chunk of shares. Yet last month, the stock shed 24% in a single day after Netflix lowered its annual guidance by two pennies per share.

If the U.S. economy does enter a recession, chances are pretty good Netflix will survive. However, thanks to the market's irrational fear, today you can scoop up shares of this quality company at a discount to intrinsic value.

All quality, all the time
So far, the Stock Advisor strategy has paid off: David and Tom's average recommendation is up 61%, versus 19% for like amounts invested in the S&P 500. To see all of David and Tom's recommendations and to browse through their complete archives, click here for a free 30-day trial. There is no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published Jan. 11, 2008 as "Are We Headed for a Recession? Who Cares?" It has been updated.

The only recession that concerns Rich Greifner is that of his hairline. He does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Netflix is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Quest Diagnostics is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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