The Impact of Recessions on Publishing Industries, Part I

December 16, 2018 by Thad McIlroy

The upside of predicting a downturn in the economy is that eventually you’ll be right. The downside is that while the party’s still in full swing you’re just the grouchy guy in the corner, scowling at the other guests.

I’ve been calling for the current stock market sell-off for a couple of years now, and if you’d listened to me you would have missed out on at least a 20% plus gain in your investment portfolio. But this market “correction” is surely overdue: there’s only so long that people are willing to pay $225/share for a company that makes overpriced cameras masking as smartphones (or is it overpriced smartphones pretending to be cameras?) before somebody blinks, or some bad news pops. Apple shares are down 30% from their recent October peak; the much-lauded trillion-dollar-plus company is now worth roughly $800 billion.

So are stocks a bargain right now, or, if you sell this week could you be protecting yourself from a further drop of 10 or 20 or 30 per cent? It’s your call.

The stock market isn’t necessarily a proxy for the broader economy. Stock markets often move independently of other economic trends. It just that the current market swings are the broadest we’ve seen in a while, which got me thinking about where the economy is headed. At what point does the economy blink the way the stock market is blinking? In other words, when does the broader economy return to a recessionary state, last seen a decade ago, and how will that impact the publishing industries that I follow on this blog.

Yesterday Today?

I’ve been re-reading Frederick Lewis Allen’s excellent Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. Published in 1931, just after the events described, Allen’s insightful book reads as if he had the benefit of  years of highsight in preparing his account of a decade “when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows.” In this decade some 90 years later we’ve been enjoying the dizzying highs. How much heartbreak are we facing in the next round of lows? Or maybe things will be OK; it could be just a blip. Maybe this time it’s different.

Warning Signs

Call me a contrarian: I collect bad reviews of the economy. I’ve got a folder called “Next Recession” nested in a broader basket I call “Current Economics.” Fifty clippings are contained within, with titles like “Another Economic Downturn is Just a Matter of Time” and “Here’s What Could Make the Next Global Recession Even Worse.” Many date back to mid-2017. Those are nearly all optimistic, stating that a recession is nowhere in sight. In early 2018 the forecasts remained sanguine, most predicting that we’re in the clear at least into 2020. In a May economist roundup by the Wall Street Journal the consensus was also 2020, with nearly a quarter of the group looking out to 2021. John Mauldin’s May survey of “seven smart market thinkers” suggested less optimism, with an average prediction for recession in the second half of 2019. But an October article on CNN puts the recession two years out, to the summer of 2020.

The Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook December survey of the folks holding the corporate purse-strings tallied half of CFOs expecting a recession by end of next year. Of course predictions like this can be self-fulfilling: as Peter Boockvar points out, “While the CFO’s surveyed could be very wrong in their predictions, for the sole reason that they think there is a good chance of recession coming, they will act accordingly, aka, more conservatively.”

A FoxBusiness story published yesterday is headlined “Why the US economy will likely fall into a recession next year.” It features an interview with the chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab who actually doesn’t think we face an economic recession next year.

So there you have it. The next recession is due some time next year or the year after that or maybe in 2021.

It’s your call.

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

Why am I bothering with this exercise in recession-mongering? Here’s my use case: even if the next downturn is two years away, publishers should be putting contingency plans in place now. Things could get ugly.

In the next blog entry I’ll look at the historic impact of recessions on the varied publishing industries. Recession-proof? We’ll see.


Some additional recession-related predictions/analysis published after this blog post:

  • The chance of recession in the next 12 months rose to 23 percent in the CNBC Fed Survey (CNBC).
  • How Close are We to The Start of the Next Recession? (Seeking Alpha)
  • Next US recession will be ‘much worse’ than the last: Euro Pacific Capital CEO Peter Schiff (FOXBusiness).
  • Why are markets falling, and are we heading for global recession? (The Guardian).
  • As Markets Tumble, Tech Stocks Hit a Rare and Ominous Milestone (New York Times)
    • Several important points in this article:
      1. “The tech-heavy Nasdaq… has officially entered a bear market.”
      2. “Bear markets in stocks are rare but have the power to spread gloom through the economy.”
      3. “The stock market is still well above where it was even at the start of 2017.”
  • Bloomberg, December 30: “U.S. Stocks End Worst Year Since Financial Crisis.” But there’s been a solid bounceback in the last week. Could this be (using my all-time favorite stock market term) a Dead Cat Bounce?
  • January 3: Apple shares slide after iPhone maker issues rare revenue warning (Reuters).
  • January 3: Chinese Consumers’ Confidence Sags, Casting a Pall Over the Global Economy (NYT)
  • January 3: Delta Spurs Plunge Among Airlines After Cut to Revenue Forecast (Bloomberg).
  • January 4: A generally optimistic forecast from the World Economic Forum.
  • January 5: A very good overview from The EconomistWhoosh: What the market turmoil means for 2019
  • January 7: The Wall Street Journal thinks “Signs Point to Strong January for Stocks”  while
  • January 8: The Guardian reports “Analysts: Recession risks have increased” with one analyst suggesting that “The German economy has likely hit a (technical) recession.”
  • January 10: The Wall Street Journal again: “Economists See U.S. Recession Risk Rising.”
  • January 15: “Chief economist says AAPL share price predicts a trade recession in China.”
  • January 20: New York Times: “Three straight weeks of gains in the new year on Wall Street have erased nearly all of 2018’s losses. It’s the best start to a year since 1987.”
  • January 22: New York Times: “Stocks Sink on Growth Fears and Possible Snag in Trade Talks.”
  • January 22: The PwC 22nd Global CEO Survey: “CEOs’ curbed confidence spells caution.”
  • January 22: The Economist: “The euro area is back on the brink of recession.”
  • January 25: Paul Krugman in the New York Times: “The conditions for such a slump are now in place, in a way they weren’t even a few months ago.”
  • February 24: The Wall Street Journal: “Resurgence in Cyclical Stocks Pushes Dow Industrials Toward New High”
  • February 24: Bloomberg: “How to Identify a Bear Market Rally”
  • March 17, WSJ: “Stocks and commodities are on the verge of rallying to highs that have eluded them during recent upswings, a breakthrough that investors say would likely fuel further gains.”

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