Unemployment Rate and Recessions

The Unemployment Rate Does Not Signal A Recession Soon: Update – February 7, 2020

  • For what is considered to be a lagging indicator of the economy, the unemployment rate provides surprisingly good signals for the beginning and end of recessions.
  • This model, backtested to 1948, reliably provided recession signals.
  • The model, updated with the January 2020  rate of 3.6%, does not signal a recession.

A reliable source for recession forecasting is the unemployment rate, which can provide signals for the beginning and end of recessions (Appendix B charts the UER recession indicator for the period 1948 to 2015). The unemployment rate model (article link) updated with the September 2019 rate of 3.5% does not signal a recession.

The model relies on four indicators to signal recessions:

  • The short 12-period and a long 60-period exponential moving average (EMA) of the unemployment rate (UER).
  • The eight-month smoothed annualized growth rate of the UER (UERg).
  • The 19-week rate of change of the UER.

The criteria for the model to signal the start of recessions are given in the original article and repeated in the Appendix.

Referring to the chart below and looking at the end portion of it, one can see that none of the conditions for the start of a recession are currently present.

  • The UER at 3.6% is up from last month The short EMA is below its long EMA, the blue and red graphs, respectively, and the spread narrows to minus 0.10%, last month’s minus 0.15%.
  • UERg had formed a trough in 2015, peaked at minus 4.4% end 2016 and declined to minus 14.1% beginning 2018. After rising to minus 2.17% in April 2019 it is declining again forming a trough in August. Now  at minus 6.89%, which is above last month’s minus 8.06% – the green graph.
  •  Also, the 19-week rate of change of the UER dincreased  to plus 2.0%, last month at minus 5,4%, and is far from the critical level of plus 8% – the black graph.

width="640"/(click to enlarge)

For a recession signal, the short EMA of the UER would have to form a trough and then cross its long EMA to the upside. Alternatively, the UERg graph would have to turn upwards and rise above zero, or the 19-week rate of change of the UER would have to be above 8%.

Based on the historic patterns of the unemployment rate indicators prior to recessions, one can reasonably conclude that the U.S. economy is not heading into recession soon.


The model signals the start of a recession when any one of the following three conditions occurs:

  1. The short exponential moving average (EMA) of the unemployment rate (UER) rises and crosses the long EMA to the upside, and the difference between the two EMAs is at least 0.07.
  2. The unemployment rate growth rate (UERg) rises above zero, while the long EMA of the unemployment rate has a positive slope, and the difference between the long EMA at that time and the long EMA 10 weeks before is greater than 0.025.
  3. The 19-week rate of change of the UER is greater than 8.0%, while simultaneously the long EMA of the UER has a positive slope and the difference between the long EMA at the time and the long EMA 10 weeks earlier is greater than 0.015.


Ready to Call a Recession — BCI Update 4/2/2020

Is your investment strategy protecting your assets from the next recession? Our Business Cycle Index is a tool to help you gauge recession risk.

Back testing the BCI (short for Business Cycle Index) shows that it would have provided, on average, a 20-week leading signal for the past seven recessions.

Update 4/2/2020

The US economy is in uncharted territory. The BCI signals a recession warning this week. Regardless of the signal, we need to know how the COVID-19 pandemic has, or has not, influenced the calculations. Table 1 list the economic data that the BCI uses and combines the components for the index in “real time” i.e. the data is only incorporated into the index at its publication date.

Table 1. The components of the BCI
Validity Date Publication Date Economic Series
4/1/2020 4/1/2020 10-year Treasury yield (daily)
4/1/2020 4/1/2020 Three-month Treasury bill yield (daily)
4/1/2020 4/1/2010 S&P 500 (daily)
3/21/2020 4/2/2020 Continued Claims Seasonally Adjusted (weekly)
2/14/2020 3/6/2020 All Employees: Total Private Industries (monthly)
2/28 2020 3/24/2020 New houses for sale (monthly)
2/28/2020 3/24/2020 New houses sold (monthly)

From above table it is evident that the full effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the BCI will only manifest itself after the March and April housing data is published.  Today’s Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims Report had an unprecedented high number of Initial Claims that will reflect in next week’s Continues Claims, which in turn will drive the BCI further down.

The BCI at 249.0 is down from last week’s 253.1, and is below the previous high for this business cycle indicated by the BCIp at 6.6, which signals a recession.  Also, the 6-month smoothed annualized growth BCIg at 3.8  is down from last week’s upward revised 6.2.  BCIg probably will below zero next week or the week thereafter.

Figure 1 plots BCIp, BCI, BCIg, the S&P500, and the thresholds (red lines) that need to be crossed from above to below to signal a looming recession.

(click to enlarge)

The Business Cycle Index

Nobody can predict the arrival date of the next recession. However, using freely available economic data we derive a reliable signal that warns of an oncoming recession. We designed the Business Cycle Index to signal well in advance the beginning of a NBER-recession. The BCI uses the below listed economic data, downloaded from FRED.

  1. 10-year treasury yield (daily)
  2. 3-month treasury bill yield (daily)
  3. S&P500 (daily)
  4. Continues Claims Seasonally Adjusted (weekly)
  5. All Employees: Total Private Industries (monthly)
  6. New houses for sale (monthly)
  7. New houses sold (monthly)

The 6-month smoothed annualized growth rate of a series is a well-established method to extract an indicator from it. We use this method to obtain BCIg, i.e. the calculated growth rate with 6.0 added to it. The BCIg generates on past performance an average 11-week leading recession signal when it falls below zero.

Also, the index BCI retreats from its cyclic peak before a recession in a well-defined manner. This is the basis for the alternative indicator BCIp (and its variant BCIw) which gives an average 20-week leading signal to the next recession when BCIp falls below 25.

A more detailed  description of the BCI can be found here.

Investment Strategy

As a guide on how to use the BCI refer to Exit Signals for the Stock Market from iM’s Business Cycle Index and to Table 1 in this post.

Figure 2 graphs the history of BCI, BCIg, and the LOG(S&P500) since July 1967, and Figure 3 plots the history of BCIp. Overall 46 years of history that includes the seven last recessions each of which the BCIg, and BCIp, managed to signal. These graphics also include the weeks lead signaled to the then next recession.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)



With reference to Section 202(a)(11)(D) of the Investment Advisers Act: We are Engineers and not Investment Advisers, read more ...
By the mere act of reading this page and navigating this site you acknowledge, agree to, and abide by the Terms of Use / Disclaimer