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Everything You Need to Know About Recessions

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Everything You Need to Know About Recessions

expansions recessions

Everything You Need to Know About Recessions

Just like in life, markets go through peaks and valleys. The good news for investors is that often the peaks ascend to far greater heights than the depths of the valleys.

Today’s post helps to put recessions into perspective. It draws information from Capital Group to break down the frequency of economic expansions and recessions in modern U.S. history, while also showing their typical impact.

What is a Recession?

Not all recessions are the same. Some can last long while others are short. Some create lasting effects, while others are quickly forgotten. Some cripple entire economies, while others are much more targeted, impacting specific sectors within the economy.

Recession is when your neighbor loses their job. Depression is when you lose yours.

– Harry Truman

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession can be described as a significant decline in economic activity over an extended period of time, typically several months.

In the average recession, gross domestic product (GDP) is not the only thing shrinking—incomes, employment, industrial production, and retail sales tend to shrink as well. Economists generally consider two consecutive quarters of declining GDP as a recession.

The general economic model of a recession is that when unemployment rises, consumers are more likely to save than spend. This places pressure on businesses that rely on consumers’ income. As a result, company earnings and stock prices decline, which can fuel a negative cycle of economic decline and negative expectations of returns.

recession expansion cycle

During economic recoveries and expansions, the opposite occurs. Rising employment encourages consumer spending, which bolsters corporate profits and stock market returns.

How Long Do Recessions Last?

Recessions generally do not last very long. According to Capital Group’s analysis of 10 cycles since 1950, the average length of a recession is 11 months, although they have ranged from eight to 18 months over the period of analysis.

Jobs losses and business closures are dramatic in the short term, though equity investments in the stock market have generally fared better. Throughout the history of economics, recessions have been relatively small blips.

 Average ExpansionAverage Recession
Months6711
GDP Growth24.3%-1.8%
S&P 500 Returns117%3%
Net Jobs Added12M-1.9M

Over the last 65 years, the U.S. has been in an official recession for less than 15% of all months. In addition, the overall economic impact of most recessions is relatively small. The average expansion increased GDP by 24%, whereas the average recession decreased GDP by less than 2%.

In fact, equity returns can be positive throughout a contraction, since some of the strongest stock rallies have occurred in the later stages of a recession.

Buying the Dip: Recession Indicators

Whether you are an investor or not, it would be wise to pay attention to potential recessions and prepare accordingly.

There are several indicators that people can watch to anticipate a potential recession, which might give them an edge in preparing their portfolios:

Recession IndicatorWhy is it Important?Average Length Until Recession
Inverted Yield CurveOften a sign the U.S. Fed has hiked short-term rates too high or investors are seeking long-term bonds over riskier assets.15.7 months
Corporate ProfitsWhen profits decline, businesses cut investment, employment, and wages.26.2 months
UnemploymentWhen unemployment rises, consumers cut back on spending.6.1 months
Housing StartsWhen the economic outlook is poor, home builders often cut back on housing projects.5.3 months
Leading Economic Index
Aggregation of multiple leading economic indicators. gives a broader look at the U.S. economy.
4.1 months

This is not a magic rubric for anticipating every economic downturn, but it helps individuals see the weather patterns on the horizon. Whether and where the storm hits is another question.

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Energy

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2021 Edition)

Which commodity had the best returns in 2020? From gold to oil, we show how commodity price performance stacks up over the last decade.

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The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2011-2020)

Being a commodity investor can feel like riding a roller coaster.

Take silver. Typically known for sharp, idiosyncratic price movements, it faced double-digit declines in the first half of the decade, falling over 35% in just 2013 alone. By contrast, it jumped over 47% in 2020. Similarly, oil, corn, and others witnessed either steep declines or rapid gains.

The above graphic from U.S. Global Investors traces 10 years of commodity price performance, highlighting 14 different commodities and their annual ranking over the years.

Commodity Price Performance, From Best to Worst

Which commodities were the top performers in 2020?

The aforementioned silver tripled its returns year-over-year, climbing 47.9% in 2020. In July, the metal actually experienced its strongest month since 1979.

RankCommodity
Return (2020)
Return (2019)
Return (2018)
1Silver47.9%15.2%-8.5%
2Copper26.0%3.4%-17.5%
3Palladium25.9%54.2%18.6%
4Gold25.1%18.3%-1.6%
5Corn24.8%3.4%6.9%
6Zinc19.7%-9.5%-24.5%
7Nickel18.7%31.6%-16.5%
8Gas16.0%-25.5%-0.4%
9Wheat14.6%11.0%17.9%
10Platinum10.9%21.5%-14.5%
11Aluminum10.8%-4.4%-17.4%
12Lead3.3%-4.7%-19.2%
13Coal-1.3%-18.0%-22.2%
14Oil-20.5%34.5%-24.8%

Along with silver, at least seven other commodities had stronger returns than the S&P 500 in 2020, which closed off the year with 16.3% gains. This included copper (26.0%), palladium (25.9%), gold (25.1%) and corn (24.8%).

Interestingly, copper prices moved in an unconventional pattern compared to gold in 2020. Often, investors rush to gold in uncertain economic climates, while sectors such as construction and manufacturing—which both rely heavily on copper—tend to decline. Instead, both copper and gold saw their prices rise in conjunction.

Nowadays, copper is also a vital material in electric vehicles (EVs), with recent demand for EVs also influencing the price of copper.

Silver Linings

As investors flocked to safety, silver’s price reached heights not seen since 2010.

The massive scale of monetary and fiscal stimulus led to inflationary fears, also boosting the price of silver. How does this compare to its returns over the last decade?

silver returns 2011-2020

In 2013, silver crashed over 35% as confidence grew in global markets. By contrast, in 2016, the Brexit referendum stirred uncertainty in global markets. Investors allocated money in silver, and prices shifted upwards.

As Gold as the Hills

Like silver, market uncertainty has historically boosted the price of gold.

What else contributed to gold’s rise?

  • U.S. debt continues to climb, pushing down confidence in the U.S. dollar
  • A weaker U.S. dollar makes gold cheaper for other countries to buy
  • Low interest rates kept the returns of other safe haven assets low, making gold more attractive by comparison

Here’s how the price of gold has changed in recent years.

gold returns 2011-2020

Gold faced its steepest recent declines in 2013, when the Federal Reserve bank discussed tapering down its quantitative easing program in light of economic recovery.

Hitting the Brakes On Oil

Oil suffered the worst commodity price performance in 2020, with -20.5% returns.

For the first time in history, oil prices went negative as demand plummeted. To limit its oversupply, oil producers shrunk investment, closed wells, and turned off valves. Unfortunately, many companies still faced bankruptcies. By November, 45 oil producers had proceeded with bankruptcy filings year-to-date.

This stood in stark contrast to 2019, when prices soared 34.5%.

oil returns 2011-2020

As is custom for oil, prices see-sawed over the decade. In 2016 and 2019, it witnessed gains of over 30%. However, like 2020, in 2014 it saw huge losses due to an oversupply of global petroleum.

In 2020, total production cuts hit 7.2 million barrels a day in December, equal to 7% of global demand, in response to COVID-19.

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Mining

Why Gold Mining Stocks Outperform Gold in Bull Markets

Gold mining stocks outpace gold returns in bull markets, but how? With higher gold prices, miners get ahead thanks to operating leverage.

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Gold Mining Stocks in Gold Bull Market

Why Gold Mining Stocks Outperform Gold in Bull Markets

Gold is highly revered for its great returns and resilience during economic downturns, but during gold bull markets there’s something that regularly provides even greater returns: the ownership of gold mining stocks.

Over the past 20 years, gold mining stocks have outperformed the price of gold bullion in bull markets, offering what can be seen as a leveraged play on gold’s price appreciation.

While gold miners offer more potential upside, they also have higher volatility and greater downside during dips, making market timing and strong hands all the more important.

This infographic comes to us from Sprott and compares the returns of gold stocks and gold bullion in bull markets. It also explains how gold stocks outperform thanks to profit expansion, and shows why there might be more upside for gold miners to come.

How Operating Leverage Benefits Gold Mining Companies

During the 2000-2011 gold bull market, the price of physical gold rose 550%. While you might think that number is hard to beat, over the same period of time gold mining equities (represented by the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index) returned more than 690%.

In the current gold bull market which started in 2015, gold mining stocks are up more than 182%, more than doubling gold bullion’s 78% returns.

This outperformance in bull markets is largely due to how gold mining companies use their operating leverage to maximize profits, resulting in their share prices appreciating.

Breaking Down Gold Mining Costs and Profits

As a gold mining company mines and produces gold, the gold is sold on the market fairly quickly to avoid the risk of gold’s price depreciating.

When the price of gold rises, miners immediately start to see greater profits from selling their ounces on the market. While the costs to mine gold also rise in bull markets, they rise less and at a slower rate.

The result of this is profit expansion: when operationally efficient gold mining companies are able to capture larger profits, resulting in increased operating and free cash flow.

Breakdown of Barrick Gold’s Profit per Ounce of Gold

YearAll-in Sustaining Costs/oz (in USD)Realized Gold Price/oz (in USD)Profit/oz (in USD)
2015$831$1,157$326
2016$730$1,248$518
2017$750$1,258$508
2018$806$1,267$461
2019$894$1,396$502
2020$984$1,748$764

During the current gold bull run which started in 2015, Barrick Gold’s average realized price per troy ounce of gold increased by 50%, while their all-in sustaining costs per troy ounce only went up by 18%.

This has resulted in the company increasing their profit per ounce of gold sold by a staggering 134% over the past six years.

Making the Most of Golden Times

While higher profit margins during bull markets are great, it’s up to the individual company to ensure the extra cash is being used prudently to efficiently support their operations.

Bull markets don’t last forever, and gold miners must use these prosperous times to strengthen their balance sheets, reward shareholders, and reinvest into projects which will provide future value and returns.

Dividend-paying gold stocks increase dividends to reward loyal shareholders, with the average dividend increase of top gold mining stocks in a bull market often doubling.

Over the decades, companies have gotten better at making the most of bull markets in order to be well-guarded for when gold prices stop appreciating, and eventually start declining.

Why Gold Mining Stocks May Still Be Undervalued

Even if gold mining stocks have already seen impressive returns over the past five years, there are some technical indicators which point to them still being undervalued compared to other equities and gold bullion.

  • The top 10 gold mining companies have seen their earnings per share estimates almost triple in the past two years.
  • The top 20 S&P 500 companies have seen around a -15% decline in their earnings per share estimates.

Along with having better earnings per share compared to the top U.S. equities, gold mining stocks may also be undervalued compared to gold bullion.

The gold mining stocks to gold bullion ratio is at historically low levels after having dropped more than 60% following the 2008 financial crisis. While gold bullion is increasingly seen as a safe haven asset for investors, gold miners are still overlooked despite their strong technicals.

Gold and Gold Miners’ Role in the Future Economy

As money printing has been the Federal Reserve’s main answer to an increasingly volatile economic climate, gold and its producers are set to play a crucial role in helping investors preserve their wealth.

Gold has yet again outperformed just about every other asset class in 2020, and gold miners offer even greater returns for those willing to manage the additional risk they present.

Gold mining stocks are much more volatile compared to gold bullion, and have a variety of additional risks dependent on their company structure, jurisdiction of operations, and operational efficiency. But for investors who are looking for exceptional returns in gold bull markets, they can be an alluring option.

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