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Recession Indicators Update: Lookback to 1990 Recession

November 4, 2019

Key Takeaways
  • There are no changes to the ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard this month, with the overall signal remaining yellow.
  • Tight Fed policy, the savings and loan crisis and the Gulf War all contributed to the 1990-91 recession. The ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard reflected these building pressures in its financial and inflationary segments early on while the consumer segment deteriorated last.
  • The overall dashboard signal turned red in June 1989, just over one year before the start of the recession.
ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard Still Signals Caution

The S&P 500 Index made another new all-time high in October, as trade tensions eased, the Fed cut interest rates another 25 bps, and corporate earnings came in stronger than anticipated. Against this backdrop, the ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard remained at an overall yellow signal, with no changes during the month (Exhibit 1). Third quarter gross domestic product (GDP) came in above consensus expectations at 1.9%, representing a slight slowdown from the pace of 2.0% in the second quarter and 3.1% in the first quarter. With both the U.S. and global economies clearly slowing, the question remains if we are on the cusp of a recession or a late-cycle slowdown.


Exhibit 1: ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard

Source: ClearBridge Investments.


Whether or not the current period devolves into a recession, we believe an examination of the evolution of the ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard during the late 1980s through the 1990-91 recession can be illustrative for investors looking to evaluate similarities - and differences - between the present and that era.

A Closer Look at the Early 1990s Recession

The early 1990s recession was one of the shallower recessions in modern history with GDP contracting just -0.2% in nominal terms and the S&P 500 experiencing a selloff of 20%. For reference, this compares with -3.3% and -57%, respectively, during the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2009. Like many U.S. recessions, a myriad of factors contributed to slower economic growth. However, the 1990 recession differs from history in that it lacks a clear single catalyst like housing in the last cycle or the tech bubble in the late 1990s. Instead, three major themes led to the recession: an aggressive round of Fed tightening, the savings and loan (S&L) crisis, and the oil shock associated with the first Gulf War. Importantly, numerous indicators on the ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard flashed caution prior to the recession.


Early 1987 marked the cycle low for both inflation and interest rates, with Core CPI troughing at 3.8% and moving to 4.5% by late 1988. In response, the Fed acted quickly and aggressively with the recent memory of double-digit inflation from the early 1980s. The Fed funds rate was hiked by 387 basis points, peaking at 9.75% in early 1989. This hawkish Fed policy response caused the Money Supply indicator to flash yellow early on and was in red territory by the end of 1988 as Fed interest rate hikes took hold.

The Fed didn’t raise interest rates in a straight line, however, and cut rates by 75 bps in the wake of the October 1987 Black Monday stock market crash. This was the only single-day bear market (a drop of -20% or worse) in history. The crash, which could not be repeated today due to the “circuit breakers” stock market exchanges implemented in subsequent years, ultimately did not spread to the real economy.

A final dynamic in this period was the beginnings of the S&L crisis. Between 1986 and 1989, 296 savings and loan associations failed. As interest rates began to rise, S&Ls were faced with higher funding costs while many of their assets were fixed rate loans (often backed by real estate). As funding costs began to move higher than the returns these institutions could earn, they began to engage in more speculative activities. In 1986 and 1987, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) — a central institution similar to the FDIC for commercial banks — was recapitalized by over $25 billion to help backstop insolvent S&Ls. However, by 1989 it was insolvent itself, with losses approaching $4 billion.


In 1989, the FSLIC was wound down and Congress created the Resolution Trust Company (RTC), which helped resolve the growing crisis. While 747 S&Ls would shut down by 1995, the losses to taxpayers were partially offset by equity partnerships to liquidate the assets of insolvent institutions.

The ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard reflected this growing systemic risk, with financial indicators such as Credit Spreads and the Yield Curve moving from green to red in 1989. The overall signal turned yellow in early 1989, with the consumer section of the dashboard remaining the last pillar of strength for the economy. However, in the second half of that year, three of the four consumer signals turned yellow, while business activities indicators such as ISM New Orders and Truck Shipments turned red, driving the overall signal to red. 


Exhibit 2: Evolution of Dashboard 1988-1991


Source: ClearBridge Investments.


By the time equity markets peaked in May 1990, the dashboard was deep into red territory. While the Fed had begun to lower interest rates in mid-1989, the lagged effects of prior Fed tightening were still being digested. The recession was cemented when Iraq invaded Kuwait in early August. Oil had been trading in the $15-20 range prior to the invasion, and peaked at $40 in October before settling back to $25 by year end.

The runup in oil prices immediately hit both consumer and business confidence, which plunged in the months following the invasion. The unemployment rate began to climb in mid-1990, and the final consumer signals which had been yellow - Housing Permits and Retail Sales - turned red, making for an all-red dashboard. Equities sold off by 20% in a relatively truncated period of 87 days. The recession was relatively shallow and oil prices stabilized in 1991 as Operation Desert Storm led to the liberation of Kuwait. Consumer confidence rebounded and the stock market recovered its losses and more by the end of 1990.

Recession Risk Indicators Can Help Guide Investors

Our analysis finds the ClearBridge Recession Risk Dashboard would have been effective in helping clue investors into the growing economic pressures ahead of the 1990-91 recession. While the Gulf War was not something the dashboard could have predicted, the overall signal from the dashboard was red well before this event, suggesting the economy was weakening and particularly vulnerable to shocks such as a rapid rise in oil prices. Ultimately, the economy recovered fairly quickly and embarked upon a 10-year period of growth.

Josh Jamner, CFA

Investment Strategy Analyst
11 Years experience
3 Years at ClearBridge

Jeffrey Schulze, CFA

Investment Strategist
15 Years experience
6 Years at ClearBridge

Related Perspectives

  • Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

  • All opinions and data included in this commentary are as of the publication date and are subject to change. The opinions and views expressed herein are of the author and may differ from other portfolio managers or the firm as a whole, and are not intended to be a forecast of future events, a guarantee of future results or investment advice. This information should not be used as the sole basis to make any investment decision. The statistics have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but the accuracy and completeness of this information cannot be guaranteed. Neither ClearBridge Investments, LLC  nor its information providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information.