How Long Will the Economic Expansion Last?
Dr. Dave Kohl
grain falling into a container
Dave Kohl

The agriculture and rural economies are in the midst of an elongated economic reset; meanwhile, the general economy, specifically the urban and coastal areas, is in record-setting territory concerning the duration of economic expansion. The U.S. economy has had 109 consecutive months of economic expansion since the Great Recession ended.

If one examines the U.S. economy from a historical standpoint, it generally tends to be asynchronous. When the general economy is performing well, agriculture and the rural areas are typically struggling. This is the result of being commodity export driven with a high density of blue-collar and manufacturing jobs in rural areas. This was the case in the 1980s and it remains true today. The commodity super cycle is a recent example of the asynchronous nature of the economy. From 2006 to 2013, agriculture was generating record profitability, while the general economy was experiencing the worst economic performance since the Great Depression.

While teaching the senior level Interpreting Economic Change class at the LSU Graduate School of Banking, the instructors asked the class, “How long will the economic expansion last?” The students’ answers were tallied using clicker technology for anonymous enumeration.

Nearly 50 percent of the respondents felt that the U.S. economy would continue to expand for a total of 116 to 125 consecutive months. At the time of this publication, the U.S. economy has been expanding for 109 consecutive months. If these predictions hold true, this period of economic expansion would potentially break the record of 120 months. The record was experienced in the 1990s when Dr. Alan Greenspan as the Federal Reserve Chairman along with President Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House worked together for a record winning streak in the economy.

The next most common response was 126 to 135 months. This length of economic expansion would take the expansion streak into the year 2020. Over 10 percent of the class, the true optimists, felt the good times would continue for 136 to 150 months, or for nearly 12 years. That truly would be record setting!

A dose of reality finds that one in seven respondents stated that a recession would be just around the corner late this year or early next year.

What could be the catalyst for the next downturn? Of course, trade and tariff issues could ripple through the global economy. When asked about the state of the economy, one Mexican banker in the class indicated that the world economy is very fragile with a negative event possibly impacting not only the U.S. economy, but major economies around the world.

An aggressive rise in interest rates or tightening credit standards could also move the economy toward a recession. The debt bubbles in the U.S. and other major economies in the world also bear watching. When borrowers have heavy debt loads, a rise in interest rates increases debt servicing responsibilities substantially. When it is all said and done, it is likely that the factor that will turn the economic tide will probably be a blue sky, black swan event that sends an unexpected shock through the economy.

Dr. Kohl is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Finance and Small Business Management and Entrepreneurship in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Dr. Kohl has traveled over 8 million miles throughout his professional career and has conducted more than 6,000 workshops and seminars for agricultural groups such as bankers, Farm Credit, FSA, and regulators, as well as producer and agribusiness groups. He has published four books and over 1,300 articles on financial and business-related topics in journals, extension, and other popular publications.

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