Personal Wealth Management / Market Analysis

Assessing the UK and Japan’s ‘Recessions’

Labels aside, weakness isn’t new—or surprising to stocks—in either country.

Two hotly anticipated GDP releases hit the wires overnight, and they weren’t pretty. Japan’s Q4 output fell -0.4% annualized, its second straight contraction, knocking it down the rankings to the world’s fourth-largest economy (behind the US, China and now Germany).[i] Meanwhile, UK GDP fell -0.3% q/q (-1.4% annualized), also its second consecutive quarterly drop, qualifying both countries for the “recession” label based on one popular definition.[ii] While the broader universe of commentators and economists hashes out whether either or both of these countries actually qualify as r-word sufferers, we think the takeaway for investors here is simple: Stocks are well aware of both countries’ headwinds, which manifested long before successive GDP reports confirmed them.

Japanese GDP may be down for only two quarters running, but domestic demand notched its third straight decline. Its slide began in Q2 2023, when household spending fell -2.7% annualized and business investment dropped -5.5%.[iii] But exports’ 16.2% surge was more than enough to offset domestic weakness and lift GDP by 4.0% annualized that quarter.[iv] Not so in Q3 and Q4, when domestic activity continued slipping and export growth wasn’t strong enough to mask it. Some might be tempted to call Q4 an improvement given the rates of contraction slowed across the board: Household spending’s decline eased from -1.4% annualized in Q3 to -1.0%, business investment’s decline moderated from -2.4% to -0.3%, and GDP’s -0.4% drop was much slower than Q3’s -3.3%.[v] But a decline on a decline is no improvement, and considering economies don’t follow laws of physics, we think it would be a stretch to argue slowing contraction is a sign the contraction is bottoming out. So we won’t.

While Britain’s decline was steeper than Japan’s in Q4, its underlying indicators were a smidge more encouraging. Household spending’s decline slowed from -3.4% annualized in Q3 to -0.6%, while business investment flipped positive, growing 6.3% annualized after Q3’s -10.7% decline.[vi] But trade was weak on both sides of the ledger, with exports and imports (which represent domestic demand) in the red. So, not a great report, but as with Japan, not new or surprising. The Bank of England (BoE) and economists globally have been penciling in a UK recession for about two years now, and they initially projected it would start in late 2022. So far, the country’s decline is tardier and milder than forecast.

So in both places, to stocks, falling output is old news. Yet, interestingly, their domestic stock markets are diverging. Japanese stocks are jumping and continually hitting post-bubble highs in yen, while UK stocks in pounds are drifting sideways after last year’s pullback. Are markets signaling Japan is secretly in much better shape than Britain? We doubt it—this seems mostly about market composition. Japan has several large multinationals that capitalize on external demand, which the aforementioned export tallies confirm finished 2023 on a strong note. To these companies, domestic demand matters less to earnings, adding tailwinds for Japanese markets. Seems to us stocks are accurately reflecting the domestic/external demand divide. UK markets, however, are much more cyclical and value-oriented in general—heavy on Financials, Energy and Materials. Energy underperformed world stocks bigtime last year, which says a lot about how oil prices defied expectations for a jump—and says little to nothing about UK economic fundamentals. Britain’s Financials have stronger UK economic ties, and they are flat since last spring, which isn’t shocking considering lending spent most of 2023 in the red. But more broadly, UK stocks are heavily value-oriented, and value has struggled globally for a long while.

In any case, markets aren’t screaming red alert—they seem to be assessing the situation and moving forward. Most importantly, Japan and the UK are 6.1% and 3.8% of global market cap, respectively—and 4.2% and 3.0% of global GDP.[vii] There are far more and bigger variables affecting global returns and growth. Simply, shallow contractions in the UK and Japan aren’t enough to tip the world into recession—not when the US and many others are still growing. Case in point, world stocks hit new highs this month. They are looking forward, at likely earnings growth over the next 3 – 30 months, not back to what two economies did as 2023 wound down.

Looking ahead, the UK and Japan aren’t challenge-free. Both have well-known domestic headwinds. But many are structural (long-running and part of the background), not cyclical—they are issues these countries have already shown they can grow through. So to us, the most likely scenario is that a growing world soon pulls them along. With expectations toward both rather low, it shouldn’t take much pull for their economies to deliver positive surprises.

[i] Source: FactSet, as of 2/25/2024.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Source: FactSet and World Bank, as of 2/25/2024.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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