The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
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Leading global economists now see a 20 per cent chance of the US falling into recession this year, and a diminishing likelihood of the Federal Reserve raising rates as previously thought. 

A Financial Times survey of 51 economists, conducted in the days after the Fed’s January meeting, underscores the impact of the past month’s severe market turbulence and a string of lacklustre economic reports out of the US and China

The fear that the world’s largest economy — considered the lone engine of global growth — is on the verge of recession has intensified. In the FT’s December survey economists had put the odds of a US recession at 15 per cent during the next two years. Now, they see a one-in-five chance of recession in the next 12 months.

The concern about a possible global slowdown — which prompted the Bank of Japan to cut interest rates to negative territory on Friday — is likely to keep the Fed from fulfilling its forecast of lifting benchmark interest rates by 100 basis points this year, leading economists say. 

The economists downgraded their expectations of the US central bank’s ability to tighten policy this year, with their median forecast coming in halfway between two and three 25 basis point rate rises in 2016. Half of those surveyed said the Fed would lift two or fewer times.

In December, the group of economists had expected 75 basis points of tightening. Nearly three-quarters then projected three or more rises. 

“There’s no question that the risks have risen given the hit that financial conditions have taken, given the softness in various indicators,” said Peter Hooper, chief economist of Deutsche Bank.

Until recently, few economists entertained the notion that the US could tip into recession. The robust labour market, alongside a briskly expanding service sector was thought likely to offset declines in the country’s manufacturing sector, which has struggled with the strengthening dollar.

A slowdown in China has renewed fears that the US economy is vulnerable, with investors pointing to dislocations in credit markets and a spate of expected defaults in the energy sector. Lists compiled by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s of companies most in danger of default have swelled.

Global stock markets have slid 6 per cent this year, including a 5 per cent drop in the US, while worldwide high-yield credit has declined almost 2 per cent. Strategists with Citigroup note that a “stunning” 31 per cent of S&P 500 companies have fallen more than 30 per cent from their 52-week highs.

Investors have pointed to sputtering capital markets as a sign that the credit cycle has turned. Large investment-grade groups have had to pay up to issue debt, while the door has been completely shut to low-rated energy companies. 

“Investors are unsure if there is a systematic or spillover event coming out of the energy sector,” said Michael Gapen, US economist with Barclays.

Economists surveyed by the FT emphasised that while the odds of a recession had climbed, a large majority still expected the US to escape one. Several who have fielded increased investor calls on the subject said that the conversation had been skewed because of the near obsession with the price of oil — a point that they argued had more to do with supply than global demand.

Mr Gapen, who put the odds of a recession between 10 and 15 per cent, said that he still thought strong consumption trends would keep the US economy from contraction.

“If you look at corporate profits, look at the data on high yield spreads, those are being driven by the weakness abroad,” he said.

“You have to make a judgment if those are the signals you should be relying on or if you should be relying on the labour market.”

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