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All That Recession Talk Is Looking More and More Like CEO Fear-Mongering

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The CEOs were subdued when announcing the headline-grabbing layoffs in recent weeks. They blamed, mostly, one thing: an impending economic downturn.

The CEO of PagerDuty, a cloud computing company, said on January 24 the organization was eliminating 7% of roles “to weather today’s economic uncertainty,” despite the fact that the company had sustained “high growth” over the last two years and improved its operating margins. Amazon decided to eliminate 18,000 roles “given the uncertain economy,” CEO Andy Jassy told employees on Jan. 4. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Nov. 9 that the company would cut 11,000 employees because of the “macroeconomic downturn.”

The question many economists were asking today (Feb. 3), though, was: What economic downturn?

January’s unemployment rate was 3.4%, a 50-year low, as the U.S. economy added 517,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—more than double the 188,000 that economists had expected. Aside from the information sector, which contains both tech and media and lost 5,000 jobs from last month, just about every other industry added thousands of jobs—or hundreds of thousands, in the case of leisure and hospitality companies.

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“I’m concerned that business leaders are looking around and seeing that everyone else is taking preventative measures, and so they’re taking preventative measures too,” says Elizabeth Crofoot, senior economist at Lightcast, a labor market data analytics company. “There’s a risk of us talking ourselves into a recession as everyone pulls back just a little bit.”

A recession is a “significant decline in economic activity” that is spread across sectors and lasts more than a few months, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and is officially determined by the agency. But many of the data points that the NBER uses to call a recession, including job growth and gross domestic product, have been strong of late. U.S. gross domestic product grew at a rate of 2.9% in the fourth quarter of 2022, following a 3.2% growth-rate in the third quarter. And there were 11 million job openings in December 2022, the government said earlier this week, more than in any of the four previous months.

That is to say, by most standard metrics, the U.S. economy is doing just fine. And the parts that have looked weak are directly related to how CEOs are feeling. About 98% of CEOs surveyed by the Conference Board going into the fourth quarter of 2022 said that they expected a U.S. recession. The reasons why are not entirely clear, but could be related to how the federal government has responded to recent inflation.

Many economists cite inflation as the reason to worry about a recession, since the Federal Reserve will increase interest rates to fight inflation, making the cost of borrowing higher. But inflation is also a sign that the economy is pretty strong. Inflation happens, by and large, when too much money is chasing too few goods; in recent months U.S. consumers flush with cash spent so much money that companies couldn’t keep up. (Arguably CEOs contributed to inflation as well by increasing prices.) The Federal Reserve responded over the last year by raising interest rates at the fastest rate since the 1980s. That makes money more expensive to borrow—for consumers who might want to buy cars or homes, but also for big companies.

And that may help explain the CEO fear-mongering a little bit more. Since around 2010, interest rates have been at rock-bottom levels, making the cost of borrowing money extremely low for companies. Rising interest rates have made it more expensive for companies to borrow at the same time that a tight labor market has forced them to raise wages. Workers made $33.03 an hour in January, on average, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, up from $31.63 a year ago.

As a result, companies “are not willing to take the same risks as before,” says Crofoot.

CEOs have been rewarded for being risk-averse in recent months. After announcing its job cuts, Amazon’s share price has gone up 25%, partly buoyed by its report this week that the company saw sales grow 9% in the fourth quarter to $149.2 billion. In its recent earnings report, Meta also reported higher revenue than analysts had expected. Its share price is 75% higher than it was on Nov. 9, when it announced layoffs.

Some 11,000 Meta employees may have lost their jobs, but Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth has bounced back, too, as a result. He’s now worth around $70 billion, according to Bloomberg, about $20 billion more than he was back in November when he warned of an economic downturn.

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