Trading Desk: For Corporate America, The Recession Is Practically Over

The government’s economists are notoriously slow to call the end of an economic cycle. That’s why I prefer to take my cues from the people who run big companies and are legally bound to check in with us every three months.

As it turns out, their sense of strain in the economy actually peaked a year ago, when about half the members of the S&P 500 referred to a “recession” in their quarterly conference calls. Since then, season after season, fewer of the country’s CEOs and CFOs have found the overall climate worth mentioning.

And fewer Wall Street pros are asking them about it. After a year of bracing for impact, a slowdown is the base scenario. Everyone expects it. Fewer people have any reason to talk about it.

After all, a slowdown you’re already braced against doesn’t feel like a slowdown any more. There’s no shock impact. That’s where corporate America is at this point.

I find that extremely refreshing because these are the people who have a front-row ticket to see exactly how healthy the business environment is. They’re watching their own numbers with paranoid intensity. They’re watching their competitors. They’re watching their customers and their suppliers.

Everything is information. And then they digest that information, spin it up as much as they can and give us their outlook. Running all the numbers, executives don’t see a boom coming this summer, but they don’t see a lot of deterioration ahead either.

Right now looks about as bad as it gets. That’s what the government economists call the “trough.” It’s the bottom, the darkest hour before the dawn. After this, earnings trends start moving forward again.

Based on the chatter on the conference calls, it feels more like the spring of 2020, after COVID lockdowns triggered a shock slowdown and forced everyone to talk about their contingency plans. By the second quarter, even the government knew we were in a recession.

If the story plays out like that this time, the government could be close to admitting that the Fed’s recession started about a year ago. Maybe by next summer, they’ll say we’re already months into the recovery.

The moral here is simple. Don’t let the government make your investment decisions. Whether they say we’re in a recession, a recovery or a full-fledged boom doesn’t matter.

If you wait for the government to call the cycle, you will always be late. You’ll wait too long to lighten up on stocks and pivot to a more defensive posture. Then you’ll dawdle on the sidelines and miss the rebound.

Look to the companies themselves for guidance. And here’s the thing: you don’t even need to hang out on the conference calls counting the number of times they say “recession.” The earnings numbers themselves tell you everything you need to know.

When earnings are going up, corporate America is not in a recession. When they’re going down as they are now, the recession is here.

We invest in corporate America. That’s the side of the economy that matters to us as investors . . . as a small voice on what we call “Wall Street.”

Main Street runs on a similar but slightly different cycle. As consumers, as workers, as households, we might feel a recession drag on much longer than it does for Wall Street. On the other hand, we might also capture the recovery a little in advance.

You can see that discrepancy play out when you look at the specific sectors that are still feeling a “recession” and the ones that have already started embracing the recovery. The banks are nervous because they’re on the hook if households default on their credit cards and car loans.

They’re still in the recession zone. So are landlords and the companies that produce copper wire, timber, steel and other construction materials.

But healthcare and technology companies are barely feeling it. That’s what you call a recession-resistant business. Utilities aren’t feeling it. Even consumer product makers aren’t really feeling it.

Whatever “recession” remains ahead for these companies is relatively mild. Maybe it’s almost over if it’s still going on for them at all. Either way, it’s barely worth talking about.

If you’re nervous about a recession, this is the area of the market where you want to be. Skip the rest.

And if you’re already looking past the recession, I’d buy the landlords and even the banks on the dip. You can be selective and go for what you see as quality or you can go broad and figure that you’ll end up holding the winners. But when the cycle turns, you’ll probably be in pretty good shape.