Odds of a recession spike to a three-year high, according to CNBC's Fed survey

  • Respondents to the CNBC Fed Survey put the probability of a recession in the next 12 months at 26 percent, the third straight increase and the highest since January 2016.
  • The Fed will now hike just once in 2019, the survey respondents expect, down from a forecast of two in the December survey.
  • The group forecast modest stock gains of just over 4 percent this year from here.
  • The survey was conducted last week with 46 respondents.

The chance of recession in the next 12 months spiked to its highest level in three years as market participants ratcheted up their worries about global economic weakness, Fed rate hikes, the market sell-off, trade tensions and the government shutdown.

The CNBC Fed Survey, conducted last week while the government was still shut down, saw the probability of a recession in the next 12 months rise to 26 percent, the third straight increase. The probability was last higher at nearly 29 percent in January 2016, following another market sell-off, showing how sensitive the outlook for survey respondents can be to market gyrations.

"When you look at the slide in global growth, it is hard to think that, in a matter of time, the U.S. won't join the slide," Kevin Giddis, head of fixed income capital markets at Raymond James Financial, wrote in response to the survey. "This prospect has only been enhanced by a lack of a trade deal, the government shutdown, and a completely inefficient cooperation in Washington."

Neither the 2016 spike, nor the one that saw the series hit the all-time of 36 percent in 2011, preceded a recession. But the Fed reacted both times to the deterioration in underlying conditions: it launched its third round of quantitative easing in 2012 and delayed rate hikes for a year in 2016.

One hike

The Fed's two-day policy meeting began on Tuesday and will end with a 2 p.m. ET statement Wednesday followed by a news conference from Chairman Jerome Powell.

Similarly, the 46 respondents to the Fed Survey believe the central bank will now hike just once in 2019, down from a forecast of two in the December survey. And just 48 percent of respondents believe the Fed will hike in 2020, while 37 percent believe the Fed will cut rates.

"The FOMC policy statement will shift to a dovish tone that aligns with recent Fed speak," Kathy Bostjancic, head of U.S. macro investor services at Oxford Economics USA, wrote about the January meeting. "It will signal a pause in rate hikes by removing the reference to 'some further gradual' rate increases and modifying or removing the balance of risks assessment."

One hundred percent of respondents expect no rate hike from the January meeting, the first where Powell will hold a news conference after every meeting.

Small stock gains

Respondents forecast modest stock gains of just a little over 4 percent this year from here and a further 3.5 percent in 2020, bringing the level of the S&P 500 to 2,846. Recent market volatility was blamed about equally on global economic weakness, Fed rate hikes and tariff policies, with less blame placed on the Fed's the balance sheet runoff and U.S. economic growth concerns. Twenty-seven percent say the Fed gives short-run changes in bond and stock markets too much consideration, while 53 percent say the Fed pays the right amount of attention to it; 18 percent say it's not enough.

Meanwhile, approval of President Donald Trump's handling of the economy fell nearly 10 points to just 43 percent, a low percentage in a survey where respondents have given the president high marks for his economic stewardship. Protectionist economic policies, global economic weakness and a Fed policy mistake are seen as the biggest threats to the expansion. Yet, respondents to the CNBC Fed Survey actually raised their forecast for 2019 growth to 2.4 percent from 2.3 percent in the prior survey and from 1.8 percent to 2.05 percent for 2020. Unemployment is seen edging higher this year.

"The political concerns are outweighing the economic ones and once the chaos in Washington is cleared, the markets should rebound and interest rates rise sharply to reflect the true underlying strength of the economy," wrote Joel L. Naroff, president, Naroff Economic Advisors.

The 10-year note yield is forecast to rise to just over 3 percent this year.

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