A series of banking crises this month headlined by the failure of Silicon Valley Bank has forced analysts from multiple banks, including JPMorgan Chase, to rewrite their recession forecasts from scratch, as months of small victories against inflation and a relatively strong economy were potentially swept away in under two weeks.
Even if the government and the private sector are able to successfully contain contagion from the bank collapses spreading through the economy, the failures may still lead to lasting damage for the U.S. financial system. Some banks are teetering on the edge in Europe and the U.S., while jittery markets and the promise of stricter regulation could lead to a credit crunch—a steep decline in banks’ willingness to lend caused by a lack of funds.
It adds up to an impossible choice the Federal Reserve has to make when officials meet on Wednesday: Slow down the pace of interest rate hikes or plow ahead to bring down resurgent inflation and risk amplifying damage to the economy. But as far as the Fed is concerned, hopes of engineering a soft landing for the economy and avoiding a recession may already be in the rearview mirror.
“The Fed is facing a difficult task on Wednesday, but it is likely already past the point of no return,” JPMorgan strategists led by Marko Kolanovic, the bank’s chief global markets strategist, wrote in a note to clients Monday. “A soft landing now looks unlikely, with the airplane in a tailspin (lack of market confidence) and engines about to turn off (bank lending).”
It is still unclear how far contagion from SVB will spread. New York–based Signature Bank failed days after SVB, requiring sweeping government measures to restore confidence that account holders in both banks would be made whole, but other small-sized and regional banks remain in precarious positions. San Francisco–based First Republic remains at high risk, although larger U.S. banks banded together last week to provide a $30 billion deposit to prop up its finances. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also pledged Tuesday that the government was prepared to step in again if issues at other banks “pose the risk of contagion.” But even if depositors are safeguarded, the damage may have already been done.
“Even if central bankers successfully contain contagion, credit conditions look set to tighten more rapidly because of pressure from both markets and regulators,” JPMorgan wrote.
The analysts referred to current challenges as a possible “Minsky moment,” named after the American economist Hyman Minsky, who famously predicted that extended bull markets naturally end in epic and monumental collapses. A Minsky moment happens when the inevitable check comes due and the house of cards finally falls down. JPMorgan analysts wrote our Minsky moment is nearing as the past few weeks alone have seen a number of economic and geopolitical threats to the world, including banking crises on both sides of the Atlantic, China striking a new diplomatic deal with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile trip to Moscow and visit with sanctioned Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who was recently issued an international arrest warrant for war crimes committed in Ukraine.
Investors and historians have warned for years that an extended bull market in the U.S. since 2009 would inevitably lead to an economic overcorrection: “The long, long bull market since 2009 has finally matured into a fully-fledged epic bubble,” investor and market historian Jeremy Grantham wrote in 2021. More recently, Grantham has been warning of an all-consuming “everything bubble,” which he called “pretty damn big” during an interview this month with economist David Rosenberg.
“‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,’” JPMorgan analysts wrote, citing a famous Vladimir Lenin quote.
JPMorgan isn’t the only major bank to have downgraded its economic forecasts in recent weeks; Goldman Sachs also told clients last week the banking crisis could deliver a severe blow to U.S. economic growth. And former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has warned multiple times in recent months even before the banking crisis that the economy could be headed for a “Wile E. Coyote moment,” having already run off a cliff edge but still blissfully unaware of the sudden crash about to happen.
The longest bull market in U.S. history that began in 2009 only ended in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The short-lived 2020 recession was quickly replaced by another ferocious bull market in 2021, but after a year of slowing growth, the long-awaited Minsky or Wile E. Coyote moment may have finally arrived.