Economists and stock pickers have their supercomputers humming to try to determine when the next recession and market swoon will happen.
I don’t need all that fancy software. Nor do I need to analyze reams of political or trade-trend white papers. My quarter-mile-long measuring stick for economic calamity: Japanese sports cars.
That’s because the past three recessions can all be connected to when Japan’s automakers launched a new generation of hair-pinning acceleration monsters. I’m not sure if it’s correlation, causation, or coincidence. All I know is that it happens.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the last three measurable U.S. recessions happened July 1990–March 1991, March 2001–November 2001, and December 2007–June 2009.
Let’s walk through what happened in each of them.
1990: The Japanese bubble economy bursts, triggering a global economic crisis, including here in America. What else was happening then? The Acura NSX, Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo, and Mitsubishi 3000GT were launching (as was Mazda’s doomed Amati luxury brand), followed a year or two later by the Lexus SC 400, Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo, and Toyota Supra. Sure, Lexus, Mazda, and Toyota could have killed or delayed the cars, but sunk-cost theory evidently wasn’t in vogue back then. No one was about to blink, lack of consumer confidence be damned.
2001: A lot of folks pin this recession on the 9/11 attacks, but America was already deep into a recession by September 2001, thanks to the dot-com collapse. Want to know what was on the boats coming over from Japan? The gleaming new Honda S2000. Guess what was in the immediate pipeline? The Mazda RX-8, and Nissan 350Z.
2007: The banking and real estate crises put the global economy in the tank. Guess what was rolling into dealerships: The Nissan GT-R. Meanwhile the Lexus LFA was all over auto show stands. And Honda was due to launch its next NSX, but smartly killed it.
How could these wondrous cars have such fantastically awful luck?
Well, Japanese automakers are overseen by bean counters who are exceedingly conservative. Oh, sure, Toyota has been spending upward of $10 billion a year on R&D of late, but it’s always on essential stuff—such as hybrids, fuel cells, solid-state batteries, and the Camry and RAV4 redesigns. It’s the sensible shoes approach.
But a sports car or supercar? That’s a $500 million to $1 billion investment in a low-volume entry, often riding on a bespoke platform and powered by a bespoke engine. These are real-deal rear-wheel-drive sports cars, not warmed-over hot hatches. The gigantic expenditure and amortization can only be measured profitably in terms of marketing impressions and media moments.
That said, when times are good and profits are high, Japanese automakers have green-lit sports cars like they hit “00” three times in a row at the Caesar’s Palace roulette tables. During the booming ’80s, the roaring ’90s, and the go-go aughts, approval for sports cars got waved through like they were bothersome mosquitos.
The problem is that cars like that are complicated to develop and manufacture. R&D typically takes several years from green light to Job 1—by which time, the superheated economy has started to cool, sometimes dramatically so.
To make this not just a lesson in theoretical gymnastics, I’ll do some math, too.
For the 11 economic cycles from 1945 through the last recession, the average number of months between peaks (or between troughs) was about 69, according to NBER. But the longest stretches were 100, 117, and 128 months. As this column hits the streets, since the end of the last trough in June 2009, it’s been 105 months. In other words, we’re due.
Guess what’s also due? The next Nissan GT-R redesign—it’s had 10 years of incremental changes, and Nissan bosses said in 2016 the new model was under development. Toyota has made the wait for the next Toyota Supra the “the longest introduction in the history of mankind,” in the words of North American boss Jim Lentz. Expect it to hit market early next year. And while Mazda has been perpetually putting the RX-9 on the backburner, the 100th anniversary of the automaker is 2020, and car companies like to give themselves lavish birthday presents.
I’m going to split the difference between those introduction dates, factor in the trough trends, and call my shot: We will start our next recession in May 2019.