March has ‘crashy vibes’ that could be a ‘prelude’ to a recession, BofA strategist says

March 10, 2023, 5:45 PM UTC
Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell pictured during a congressional testimony
The Federal Reserve's chances of avoiding a recession may be starting to fade.
Samuel Corum—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The economy is flashing more warning signs that a soft landing may not be possible, and yet another stronger-than-expected jobs report this Friday may be the nail in the coffin. For a year now, the Federal Reserve has been navigating a narrow path to bring down inflation and avoid a recession. Eight times over the past 12 months, the central bank has raised interest rates, which affect consumer and business loans, in a bid to cool down the economy and prevent a redo of the 1970s. But it doesn’t exactly seem to be working.

Wages are rising and people are still spending money in droves, which is great news for the individual American, but not so much for the Fed. It all adds up to more upward pressures to inflation and a harder job ahead for Fed chair Jerome Powell, or “crashy vibes,” in the words of Bank of America strategists led by Michael Hartnett. In their Thursday “Flow Show” note to clients, they wrote that things were “set to worsen” in March unless Friday’s jobs report for February suggested the labor market is cooling. The Flow Show argued the crashy vibes would just get worse without soft payroll numbers, and the numbers were indisputably not soft.

U.S. employers added 311,000 jobs in February, a significant slowdown from last month’s blowout report for January, when the economy added over half a million new jobs, but still hotter than economists had forecasted. The unemployment rate also rose slightly from January’s 3.4% (a 53-year-low) to 3.6%, likely a result of (slightly) more Americans joining the labor force and still looking for a job. Wages grew by 0.2%, the slowest monthly pace since February last year, but still a gain. In other words, this represents a cooldown, but just barely, with numbers likely still much higher than the Fed would like.

The report surged past expectations of Wall Street analysts, who earlier this week forecasted the economy to have added around 200,000 jobs in February, suggesting that the pace of hiring has not cooled down by much over the labor market’s historically tight recent history. A strong pace of hiring and rising wages typically fuels higher inflation, as consumers spend more and companies raise prices to compensate for higher labor costs. 

The new job report’s mixed nature makes it harder to discern what the Fed’s next steps will be when officials meet to discuss the size of the next rate hike later this month. The central bank signaled it was considering smaller rate hikes toward the end of last year, potentially even lower than last month’s 25-basis-point hike, but the strong labor market and inflation stickiness likely means more tightening ahead.

“Despite the welcome indications that the labor market is cooling, the ongoing, heady pace of monthly job growth will leave Fed policymakers uneasy,” Matt Colyar, an economist with Moody’s Analytics, told Fortune. “Market expectations have shifted in recent weeks to expect the Fed to jump back to a 50 basis point rate hike given recent strength in employment and inflation data.” 

BofA’s note also argued that the Nasdaq of 2022 and 2023 is “bearishly aping” the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the 1973–74 era, along with the “backdrop of war, fiscal excess, labor strikes [and] stop-go economic policies.” Hartnett also wrote that the past year of rate hikes and promise of more to come could be a “prelude to hard landing” for the economy, as the Fed’s chances of avoiding a recession start to fade.

In a similarly dour BofA note from last week, a team led by economist Aditya Bhave wrote that the Fed might have to raise rates as high as 5.5% from its current 4.50%–4.75% rate range if it wants to get inflation back down to its targeted 2% annual rate. The analysts wrote that the Fed will keep raising rates until they find the “point of pain for consumer demand,” adding that “a recession seems more likely than a soft landing.”

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan seemed to agree with his analysts’ expectations in an interview with Bloomberg this week, although he said that an economic downturn this year is unlikely to be particularly severe. He said BofA’s research team has penciled in a recession “beginning in the third quarter of this year,” but added that it will be a “slight recession” before economic growth returns around the middle of next year.

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