Based on the technical definition of a recession, the Great Recession lasted 18 months and ended in June 2009, just under five years ago. That was the point at which the U.S. economy stopped contracting.
Focusing on the amount of time required to attain pre-recession “high-water marks” on key business, investment and people metrics, it’s clear that the recovery has been uneven and continues to be a work in progress.
There are now several indications, including this week’s release of the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index (for April 2014), that the U.S. economy is moving in the right direction and the final pieces for a more complete recovery are falling into place.
Gross Domestic Product Perspective
The GDP has shown improvement since hitting bottom during the 2nd quarter of 2009, but year-over-year gains have been ranging from 1% to 3% - - in comparison to 3% to 4.5% range observed between late 2003 and early 2006.
The Corporate Perspective
The impact of the recession for national advertisers varied by industry and company. Apple experienced dramatic uninterrupted growth throughout the recession. Well-known recession resistant companies like McDonalds, Colgate-Palmolive and Walmart also experienced uninterrupted growth (at far lesser rates than Apple). It took companies like IBM and Intel two or three years to recover to pre-recession water-marks. And, then there are several major advertisers that, according to the Value Line Investment Survey, have not yet achieved the levels of financial performance achieved pre-recession.
Major media companies experienced similar variation in performance. Google, Discovery Communications and Comcast experienced uninterrupted growth throughout the recession. Companies like CBS, Disney and 21st Century Fox rebounded to pre-recession high-water mark levels within three to four years.
The Investor Perspective
What about the price of common stock? The value of a share of common stock is typically based on a combination of hard financial metrics from income statements (particularly earnings) and balance sheets, estimated return relative to alternative investment options and the risk tolerance of the investor.
The recession brought a reduction in investor risk tolerance. Stock prices declined to compensate for an increase in perceived risk -- which extended the amount of time required for common stock valuations to return to their pre-recession levels.
It took the S&P 500 Index five years and 5 months to return to its pre-recession high-water mark level. Of the media companies mentioned above, Disney was among the fastest to achieve its pre-recession high-water mark, 2 years and 6 months. CBS rebounded within 4 years and 8 months. Comcast rebounded within 5 years and 2 months. Twenty-First Century Fox rebounded within 5 years and 6 months.
The Consumer Perspective
The Consumer perspective is most important because consumer spending accounts for about 70% of Gross Domestic Product. To gauge what is going on in the mind of the consumer, this analysis makes use of the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, a composite of consumer assessments of the present situation and expectations for the future.
Over the previous 2 recoveries, i.e. the late 1990s and mid-2004 through mid-2008, consumers reported being positive about the present situation (red line) but with more modest expectations for the future (green line). In both of these recoveries, the present situation far exceeded expectations for the future.
By comparison to those recoveries, the current recovery has been shallow. The composite consumer confidence index (blue) is far below its pre-recession high-water mark and we have a condition that is unprecedented within recent history with the expectations index far exceeding the present situation index.
The composite consumer confidence index is now on an upward trend. The trend is being driven by improvements in the present situation index. And it appears that we are at a point where the present situation index may soon over-take the expectations for the future index, a condition that is similar to past recoveries and a possible indication that the last piece of the recovery is beginning to fall into place.
These trends are no doubt linked to progress with common stock valuations, an improving employment and jobs picture (notwithstanding concerns over reduced wage levels and part-time employment for those returning to the work-force) and improvements in real-estate values (“wealth” perception).
The Employment and Jobs
The unemployment picture has improved – at slightly above 6%, it is trending in the right direction, now about 2 percentage points above the May 2007 level. Non-farm employment is close to achieving the January 2008 level (subject to reduced wage and part-time concerns).
Real Estate Values
The Case-Shiller Home Price Index is showing evidence of a recovery in home prices, an important component linked to “wealth” perception. On a national basis, about one-third of the gap, between the Q1 2006 high-water mark level and the depressed levels observed 2011/12, has been has been closed. Of course, actual progress on this front varies on a market by market basis.
In summary , there are indications that the economy is moving in the right direction. Record levels for the S&P 500, decreasing unemployment, increasing employment and the restoration of real-estate values (and “wealth” perception) are all contributing to improvements in consumer confidence as measured by the Conference Board. With continued improvements in these areas, the economy is poised for a final “consumer-led” recovery.
Joe Abruzzo is Executive Vice President, Director of Research for Havas Media. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Abruzzo.
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