Trading Desk: How Long Will You Wait For A Recession?

History has taught investors that it’s time to prepare for recession any time the gap or “curve” between 2- and 10-year interest rates turns negative. That happened almost a year ago. No recession has been called. Instead, the threat keeps hovering over the market like a cloud.

And yet the S&P 500 has advanced 6% in the background . . . not great, but moving tentatively in the right direction and flinching from time to time.

The economy remains literally too hot for the Fed’s comfort. Every time they raise interest rates, they’re hoping to cool things down in the job market and stop people from buying quote so much stuff.

While they won’t call it a “recession,” they want an economic slowdown so they can get it over with, kill inflation and get back to work supporting the economy. That just hasn’t happened yet.

So I have to ask one simple question. How close does a recession need to be for you to bail out on the market and run for the dubious comfort of cash? Or to flip it, how much lead time do you need before you feel comfortable in the market?

Consider one thing. The average recession lasts 17 months. That’s going back to before the Civil War and the numbers tend to get better in the modern era as we learn to navigate and manage around every downturn.

The 2008 crash was an aberration, the longest and most savage in recent memory. It lasted . . . 17 months. What this means is that in the worst likely scenario for modern investors who are scared of a recession, you need to be able to wait out about 17 months.

Maintain access to that much cash if it helps your comfort level. That’s what you’ll need while we wait for the market to recover. But beyond that buffer, why aren’t you here in the market with the rest of us?

Granted, someone who bought the market when the curve inverted would be up only 6% since. But that’s a positive number. That person didn’t lose money. They kept ahead of inflation, which is more than we could say in bonds or cash.

And if you bailed out on the inversion, you lost your shot at earning that 6%. Again, not great, but better than bonds.

I get that interest rates and inflation are causing their share of damage in the economy and the market. The Fed won’t stop until that slowdown is officially called . . . and rates will probably stay elevated until the recovery is well underway.

But this is how well the market and the economy do under the stress of “restrictive” monetary policy. Imagine how good it will feel when rates go back to neutral and we can see what the economy is really capable of doing.

“It will feel great when it stops,” a hedge fund risk specialist told me the other day. That might be a year or two out, maybe into 2026 if everything goes wrong.

But 17 months of cash takes us halfway to that magic moment. And I think things will start looking better a long time before that.