Doug Duncan is not your average beltway economist.
The chief economist for Fannie Mae is surprisingly outspoken about the troublesome outlook for the US economy. He's worried about the rising cost of debt service as outstanding credit continues to mount at the same time interest rates are starting to ratchet higher, too.
He predicts the US will enter recession within a year, concurrent with a topping out of America's real estate market. It wouldn't surprise him to see the stock market falter, too, as central banks around the world begin a coordinated tightening of monetary policy and — similar to the thoughts recently expressed within our podcast with Axel Merk — Doug expects Jerome Powell to be much more reluctant to intervene in attempt to support asset prices. Having met personally with Powell, Doug thinks the Fed is now happy to see some of the air come out of the Everything Bubble (just not too much and not too fast) — a market change from past Fed administrations:
Our forecast definitely sees slowing economic activity, particularly in the second half of '19. Part of it has to do with the length of the expansion. Just because an expansion is long doesn't mean it's going to end; but they all have eventually ended, and this one is getting pretty old. I think if it's not the second longest, it's getting to be the second longest that we've ever had shortly.
The tax bill was viewed differently by different parties, but the capital markets initially took that — plus the $300 billion agreement to get past the expiration of government funding plus the budget agreement — they took all those things as inflationary. The tax bill itself has a lot of temporary provisions – some of them don’t expire for up to seven years – but some start expiring as soon as three years out. Like, on occasions, take actions today which they see having benefits up until that time of the expiration of those terms, plus the spending component – the $300 billion – also will likely take place in the next four quarters. That suggests that the second half of '19 we may well see the impulse from those things starting to fade. And that will be happening at the same time as the Fed, if it does what it says its going to do, will be continuing its tightening(…)
So,what keeps me up at night? Well, I don’t like the idea that we have a debt to GDP ratio of 100 percent. I don't think we're Japan because we have a more entrepreneurial economy, not a mercantilist economy, but that doesn't mean that debt doesn’t reduce your flexibility. It definitely reduces your flexibility, so it raises risks from that perspective.
The trade negotiations, obviously, are of a concern. Milton Freeman said a good free trade agreement can be written on one page. NAFTA was two thousand pages. It would be silly to suggest Trump doesn't have a point that there's not something in that two thousand pages that didn't work against American interests. On the other hand, if you're going to throw $150 billion of tariffs at the second largest economy in the world, you should expect a reaction. Those who read the history books and the Smoot Hawley tariffs and the Depression and have some understanding of the relationship between the two of those have to be a bit nervous. The Fed, I'm sure, is looking at that.
And the domestic economy, the thing that probably troubles me more than anything else is the decline in new business formation. It's been underway for thirty years. I've got staff that are working just trying to understand that. There's a couple reasons why I worry about that. I just make a comment about ours being an entrepreneurial economy which means it is 'dynamic' – people don’t care if the average income is higher than theirs if theirs is the median. If they expect that there's an opportunity for them to grow and gain one of those high incomes, then they're OK. But if they lose that hope, that leads us to some different possible political economy outcomes which I don’t view as particularly optimal.
But from a self-interested perspective — remember that we're in the housing and new business formation space – it used to be the case that a when small business would start, it couldn't afford to pay the same wage rate as a large business did because it didn't have the scale or the output or that kind of thing. But what the worker who got the lower wage job also got was training on how to get to work on time, how to work a full day. They would pick up some skills and some behaviors that worked broadly in the employment market. Over time they would move up, and most of them would eventually get to the middle class and buy a house. That's breaking down.
If that engine of growth for people has been cut off, then we could be facing a permanent underclass which carries a whole different set of connotations for a society which, to me, is pretty troubling.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Doug Duncan (45m:19s).