Beware the Second Leg of the Great Recession

There's no doubt that there are green shoots in the economy. The housing market, which brought on the crash, may finally be starting to recover. Housing stats bottomed in January, and it looks like the rate of decline of housing prices is slowing. The charge-off rate is falling at American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) and may be flattening at Capital One (NYSE: COF  ) . And corporate earnings aren't as big a disaster as everyone thought they'd be.

But now is not the time to be complacent.

Delusions of grandeur
Unfortunately, there's been very little evidence of a solid recovery. Sure, the financial crisis seems to be past, and the economy didn't collapse. After the turmoil that followed Lehman's failure, the government's quick actions to shore up the financial sector have convinced people that the government won't let another big bank fail. Consequently, the sheer terror we experienced last fall has faded to mere paranoia.

But beyond that, it's unclear when the real economy will recover. America's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was plummeting, and it now seems to be flattening out, but that isn't a great indicator of a recovery. It's almost inevitable that, without a complete financial collapse, GDP won't keep shrinking for long. A big part of the decline in GDP has been from inventories, which have been plummeting since October last year. But, manufacturers eventually have to increase output, or they'll run out of widgets to sell, and that boosts GDP figures.

What's more, the government has been throwing money at the economy to try to reverse the vicious cycle of layoffs resulting in lower corporate sales, which is leading to more layoffs. This, too, props up GDP, so it's not really surprising that GDP seems to have bottomed.

The key to recovery
But funding a recovery with huge government spending and massive debt is like using a defibrillator to treat a heart attack. It can work well in short doses, but it's completely unsustainable over the long term. Maybe General Motors and Ford (NYSE: F  ) aren't complaining about the 30% boost to car sales in August as a result of the Cash for Clunkers program. But does anyone really believe that demand will be sustained through September?

The government isn't the key to recovery. Neither are corporations. Consumer spending is what really matters, accounting for 70% of the GDP. But right now, consumers are acting as cheap as a Congressman who has to spend his own money.

Americans seem to have finally realized that taking on third mortgage to buy a second 74-inch TV for the bathroom is not a sensible decision. Household debt, which has been steadily rising since the 1950s, has actually started to decline. And consumer confidence, while improving, only looks good when you compare it to the all-time lows it hit in February.

But why should consumers be confident? The unemployment rate is 9.7%, a 26-year high, and still quickly rising. As if that weren't bad enough, 1.3 million Americans could exhaust their unemployment benefits before the end of the year.

And you expect consumers to help the economy rebound? Good luck with that.

Mixed messages
Insiders are nervous -- according to TrimTabs, the ratio of insider selling to buying in August exceeded 30, the highest level since TrimTabs started measuring the statistic in 2004. Companies as diverse as First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) , and Mosaic (NYSE: MOS  ) contributed to that insider selling in August.

But despite all these problems, it's still hard to form a firm conclusion. Employment is a lagging indicator -- companies hire when they need workers, not because they think that there's a chance they'll need workers next year. And insiders, like other investors, may simply be taking advantage of the huge bounce since March. Maybe we just need to wait, and those green shoots will blossom. If everything looked bright and cheery, it would hardly be the Great Recession now, would it?

It's a very confusing environment in which to be an investor. If this is the start of a recovery, the market could still run another 50% before testing the old highs. So scaling back your portfolio doesn't make sense. But if this is just an economic head fake, do you really want to relive the last few months of 2008?

The solution is to focus on value stocks. Value investing really shines right now, because it provides the best of both worlds. If you can buy a stock for 50% of its fair value, you make a 100% return if the stock returns to more rational pricing. But, since stocks tend to gravitate toward a fair price, value stocks can also cushion your portfolio during a bear market. You can get the upside, with less downside risk.

The Foolish bottom line
Our Inside Value newsletter has illustrated these benefits nicely. During 12-month period ending July 2009 -- including the massive plunge from September to March -- this newsletter massively outperformed the market by 15.4 percentage points.

It's that combination of excellent upside with a reduced downside that makes value stocks so compelling right now. If you'd like to read about our top picks, we're offering a free trial to Inside Value.

Fool contributor Richard Gibbons collects things that gravitate. He owns shares of American Express, which also happens to be an Inside Value pick. Pfizer is also an Inside Value selection. First Solar is a Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy will rock you like a hurricane.


Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (45)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 11, 2009, at 5:33 PM, plange01 wrote:

    we have been in the second leg of the great recession for just over 9 months its name is a depression and it only just started..........

  • Report this Comment On September 11, 2009, at 8:51 PM, smallormidcapman wrote:

    How is that short on YHOO treating you Fools? About as well as the short on Ford I guess. Are you guys ever right or do you pride yourselves on being wrong. If I could sum you guys up in a phrase it would be "we invest looking in the rear view mirror". As I have said before...I know I am on the right side of a trade if you guys are on the other.

    Thanks for being you...

  • Report this Comment On September 12, 2009, at 12:18 AM, DownEscalator wrote:

    Um...F is down 10% over the last month. It was and is way overbought

  • Report this Comment On September 12, 2009, at 10:27 AM, smallormidcapman wrote:

    Um...F was being bashed starting in the $4-5 range. I made over $35,000 in F on the run from high $4's to the high $7's. MF was on the wrong side of that trade the ENTIRE time.

    You are talking about a 10% pullback but you missed the HUGE runup...typical MF investor.

  • Report this Comment On September 13, 2009, at 5:02 PM, DEALWITHTHEDAY wrote:

    I have heard about the W recession so long, fundamentals are not right, I am not saying I agree or disagree. I would like for someone that is making these predictions put a date time on them. Even a quarter, half. Just repeating this over and over will make you right eventually.

  • Report this Comment On September 13, 2009, at 8:01 PM, pennyfanatic wrote:

    I think we would not have any major correction in stock market for another 2 yrs atleast. We had enough so far

    daily stock picks at www.pennystockfanatic.blogspot.com

  • Report this Comment On September 14, 2009, at 6:52 AM, devilzadvocate wrote:

    Second DEALWITHTHEDAY.

    It's just like housing bubble.. they kept talking about it for 6+ years before it hit us.

    If someone want's to claim that they predicted it.. then either put a date/time stamp on it or it's no good. We are all aware that a correction will happen eventually.. but calling it at the right time is the key.

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2009, at 11:50 PM, Retirefunds wrote:

    The unemployment rate is not 9.7% as Government would have us believe. It is a lot closer to 16% if we add in all those who have stopped looking for work, or are trying to take early retirement on less than half what they thought they would have.

    Either way, it will appear small in the rear view mirror circa 2012

    http://retirefund.blogspot.com/2009/09/wall-street-vultures-...

  • Report this Comment On September 19, 2009, at 3:40 PM, JMRipple wrote:

    I tried to download the Ken Fisher article from Forbes that you provided a link to... it never worked.

    Purry Como

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