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The Anxious Index: Worst Of Recession Over? at Trader’s Narrative

The Survey of Professional Forecasters is little known or followed outside of econometric circles but it deserves more respect. Not because it is the oldest continuously calculated macro-economic prediction survey, but because it has an uncanny ability to predict both the start and end of recessions.

Now, I know, if you’re as cynical as me, you’re thinking, “But experts are hazardous to your financial health!” Yes, that is true. But there is wisdom in a crowd of prognosticators. With one caveat: as long as they toil away in obscurity and near anonymity. The more public their image and the higher their pay, the worse their predictions - yet another reason to ignore the chicklet-toothed “strategists” on CNBC.

The results are gathered and disseminated quarterly from the answers provided by a small group of about 40 handpicked experts. I use the term ‘expert’ because they all are required to produce forecasts as part of their normal jobs. The select group are academic, Wall St. economists, consulting firms, economists at multinationals, etc. But the one thing common to all of them is anonymity; ensuring that whatever the result, none of them can take claim for correct calls or be held accountable for terrible predictions. Although this may be appear as a disadvantage, it allows them to focus on the data. For some anonymity is liberating because it removes the potential stigma of not towing the party line (within their company or organization).

One specific survey question, referring to the probability of economic weakness has gained the most fame. This measure has come to be known by its nickname: “The Anxious Index”, given by David Leonhardt in his September 1st, 2002 article in the New York Times.

Alright, enough background. What does the data say? Here’s the chart showing the probability that GDP will fall in the following quarter:

survey of professional forecasters anxious index Apr 2009
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

The recent data is the highest in the series. In the last quarter of 2008, the probability of a decline in GDP in the following quarter was 74.78% and in the first quarter of 2009 it was 73.98%. The next closest to this was back in the last quarter of 1974 (74.06%).

Interestingly enough, the probability for the present quarter experiencing a declining GDP was also the highest on record coming in at 90.14% and 94.41%. Basically the forecasters are saying, Duh? We are in a very deep recession! Why are you bothering to ask this silly question?

The Anxious Index foretells a recession when the probability of the next quarter experiencing a fall in GDP is 30% or more. You can see from the chart that it either coincides or predicts every single recession we’ve seen in the US. The most recent signal came in the first quarter of 2008 when the probability jumped to 42.91%. Of course, there were many other reasons why it was predictable at the start of 2008 that we were in a recession.

Similarly when it peaks and begins to come back down, it predicts that very soon, the economy will return to normalcy. Not immediately, but that the worst is over. The second quarter data for 2009 will be released in a little while and if it continues to head down or fall dramatically as is the pattern from previous recessions, then we have even more reason to believe that the worst is over.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly peachy. It means that things stop getting worse at an accelerated rate. Then the next step is for them to plateau and then to rise.

I’ve focused on the predictions for GDP but the Forecast survey includes data on many other macro-economic variables. Follow the above link to the Philli Fed’s site and take a look around to discover more.

The Anxious Index from the Survey of Professional Forecasters seems to concur with the Index of Coincident Indicators and at the same time, manage to be one tiny step ahead:
index of coincident indicators Apr 2009
Source: Recession, Far From Over, Already Setting Records

That isn’t surprising since the whole point of coincident indicators is to simply reflect the current situation while the Anxious Index attempts to predict the future economic situation.

So while the stock market is a forward discounting mechanism, here’s an interesting reason why, this time, the S&P 500 may actually lag GDP.

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One Response to “The Anxious Index: Worst Of Recession Over?”  

  1. 1 Dave


    I believe it was in Why Most Investors Are Mostly Wrong Most of the Time by William X. Scheinman that he advocated using the “Quit Ratio” over traditional labor statistics. Since the Quit Ratio is an indication of voluntary behavior it’s a better contrary indicator since people were more willing to quit their jobs near the tops of the economy & reluctant to quit their jobs at the depths of recessions…thus a reflection of anxiety over the economy.


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