Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Is a recession coming in 2020? Don’t ask the experts — ask your readers

October 23, 2019

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Both economic indicators and public sentiment are pointing towards a coming recession. (Image from Pixabay user Pexels)

That rumble you hear on the horizon isn’t just the weather changing in October—there are things bumping in the economic dark that are scaring more U.S. consumers, according to Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index, conducted from September 3-15. 2019.

For the third straight month in a row, more Americans think a recession is coming (49%, up from 40%). Since July, substantially more (48%, up from 37%) are glum about the economy, but that was before the Fed’s interest rate cut in July—the first in a decade–and Chinese tariffs, which some may have was just a threat by President Trump.

It’s the spooky month of October, when things go bump in the dark. Instead of being scared by the rumblings of recession talk, business reporters can help their readers with some smart reporting on these three questions:

Are your readers spooked by talk of a recession?

Ask them. The 1,565 consumers polled by Gallup are evenly split on whether a recession will hit in the next 12 months. Half said a downturn “isn’t too likely” or “not likely at all”—but 49% believe that a recession is “fairly likely” or “very likely” in 2020. The Consumer Sentiment Index from the University of Michigan posted its largest decline since 2012 in August 2019.  

The stock market is still breaking records, and employment is healthy at 3.7%, a 50-year low, so where’s the problem? Gallup conducted the poll just after the President Trump’s decision on Chinese tariffs, which many may have thought was just a threat, and before the latest round of interest cuts by the Fed, the first in a decade. The Consumer Sentiment Index from the University of Michigan posted its largest decline since 2012 in August 2019.  

Why should I care about economic indicators?

Because that’s what the experts study, to understand economic shifts. Reporters can produce a solid explanatory story on this topic for their readers.

Conduct your own online poll, focusing on the 10 key economic indicators and explain them in plain English to your readers. To stay on top of future consumer-oriented stories, set up a schedule of release dates on indicators. Here’s a primer the 10 key economic indicators from the American Association of Individual Investors.

How are your readers preparing for a recession?

This blog asked that question earlier this year. If you haven’t reported this angle yet, do it now; if you reported on consumer strategies earlier, then circle back and find out how your readers have been doing. In fact, create a baseline poll of your own. How many readers have paid off debt, or built up their emergency savings? How many are saving for retirement? How many are living below their means or taken courses to help them boost their wages? Ask your readers for their tips. Online banks are paying over 2% interest on savings account, but 70% of consumers have their cash in low-yield savings,  according to a May 2019 survey by Bankrate.com.

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