The credit crunch, rising fuel bills and soaring commodity costs - few will be immune to this economic triple-blow. The food and drinks industries have remained relatively defiant in the belief they can ride out the inevitable downturn. However, Chris Brook-Carter wonders whether this optimism is misplaced in the face of this perfect storm?

It was this week last year that this thought first occurred to me: how prepared are the food and drinks industries for the looming economic downturn that is casting a shadow across the business world?

At the time, many executives across the two sectors were adamant the idea that we might be heading for stormier waters was nothing more than empty doom mongering. That sort of optimism seems, at best, naïve now. But, at a conference I attended this time last year, a marketing executive of a food company, which will remain nameless, stood up and argued that the potential for premiumisation in the food industry was limitless. Consumers had got a taste for the good stuff now, the argument went, and the idea that they would trade back down come some financial pressure was risible.

Oh, how the likes of Marks & Spencer and Starbucks - in many ways the epitome of the premiumisation trend in food and drinks - would loved that to have been true. But recent results have proved this outlook seriously flawed.

Nonetheless, many in the food and drinks industry continue to argue that their sectors remain "recession proof" (though I have noted a slight change in language in recent months when describing the outlook from "recession proof" to "recession resistant").

This case is not without its merits. After all people will continue to eat and drink. However, with all due respect to those people managing food and drinks companies out there, the various factors that are combining to create the current climate haven't been seen for at least a generation. How can we be sure how this is going to play out, if so few in management positions now have first-hand experience of these circumstances? Furthermore, the 'drink/eat less but better' premiumisation trend is also a new phenomenon. Can we with any certainty say it will hold up against an economic storm?

It was with interest, then, that I read a piece published on our sister site just-auto this week by its financial analyst Rob Golding. Below is the piece in whole as it relates to the wider business community rather than specifically to the auto industry. He argues that a serious recession is imminent and his thoughts make for uncomfortable reading.

 

The kids don't know it yet. They are still dancing till dawn. But some of us who have the benefit of hindsight and the privilege of perspective believe that a serious recession is imminent. A strong view of the outlook is invited by recent announcements by Ford and M&S - both legendary marketeers in their respective regions and sectors.

Just to be clear: there is a definition of recession, and that is two consecutive quarters of negative growth in GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Seeing as we don't yet have one negative quarter under our belt in the UK yet, it is a little premature to place a big bet. It will be 2009 at the earliest before recession can be declared as a current state.

The kids will go on dancing. Nobody under the age of 36 in any organisation really has any idea as to what recession is, what it means and how you deal with it.

The last UK recession began 18 years ago and went straight over the head of most 1990s 18-year-olds. The previous one was 1980 which means that any manager with experience of recession as a continuing feature of business - or who at least studied the first of those two recessions at college and the second in the workplace - is now at least 45.

We really need a man or woman over 50 to tell us what it was like to be fully-embroiled as a manager in the two events.

Ford's announcement for US sales was the like of which we have never seen before: Ford, Lincoln and Mercury June sales totalled 167,000 sales - down 28% on a year ago. Retail sales in the first half of the year for SUVs were down 40% and pick-ups and vans were down 31%.

There was only one thing that rose at a comparable rate - gas prices: up 33% to $4 a gallon (US). That is one cause. The other is the shortage of cheap finance and the headlong dive in consumer confidence.

In the UK it was M&S that caused the pundits to start walloping the alarm bell. The percentage change in its figures were nothing like as severe as the situation at Ford. Food sales in the 13 weeks fell by a mere 4.5%. But the shares fell 25% - the largest one day fall for 20 years. Why? Because M&S had restored investor confidence over the last three years and was assumed to know what it was doing in the food business. If it was simply that spending on posh grub had declined, then that was very bad news too because it meant that people were consciously shifting buying habits away from the premium provider.

And we have had one of the longest periods of uninterrupted growth of personal wealth. And we have the feel-bad factor of plummeting property prices. We have a much more cohesive society and better information network than we did 18 years ago, which mean that the herds will be bigger and the stampedes will start quicker.

In the last property collapse, prices fell for two years and then took a further six to get back to the levels of the earlier peak. There are a large number of new-age serial buy-to-let investors who have yet to attempt to unwind their positions.

My house has declined in value by 15 or 20% or so. The family cars have all suffered a worse percentage depreciation in the last six months than I have seen in the previous 10 years. My broker statement received this morning tells me that my modest investments are now way below purchase price. The fuel bills are sharply up.

The people for whom I spin a few words now and again will find it harder to pay my bills [Don't worry Rob; you'll always be at the front of our bread line -  Ed]. Long lunches and exotic holidays will not feel as justified or pleasurable as they did a few weeks ago. Do we really need to be told that we are in recession before we make the necessary adjustment to cost?

The motor industry - which accounts for 10% of world GDP - has been on borrowed time for a while. The Audi R8 and the BMW X6 were both examples of top-of-the-cycle events completely out-of-tune with social obligation to reduce effluent and now additionally out of line with the future appetite to buy.

Car production has grown massively worldwide - driven by increased competition, the need to cover many more market niches and the need to access emerging markets whose combined annual growth rates are in double digits. Production was up by 3.7 million in 2007 compared with 2006.

I have a brother who makes capital equipment for the manufacturing industry - cars included - worldwide. He tells me that he and his competitors have record order books and that there is no sign at all of cancellation, or of new orders drying up. He tells me quite fiercely that the analysts' view that recession is imminent is severely misguided.

Having attempted analysis in the early stages of the last two recessions I know how unwelcome the conclusions are. There was a world-wide stock-market collapse on 19 October 1987, and I remember with great discomfort having to make a speech to a motor industry dinner a few days later at which I forecast a severe fall in car demand. For the rest of that year and most of the next it never came. Ridicule was rife. But then it struck. I was working in Birmingham then - centre of the car and manufacturing industry. People talked about the day that the phone stopped ringing and it was an uncanny, shared experience (anyone out there remember the date?). But by the time recession bit, the forecast was long forgotten.

There is an old adage among market professionals that the stockmarket is never wrong. Ordinary punters regard it as fickle and volatile, but over the long run it gets it right. Like personal anecdote however, it can be right too early to ever be remembered as a good call. FTSE 100 is down 16% in the last six weeks.

The kids can go on dancing. There is no point in trying to explain the advantage of battening down the hatches even if they knew where to find one. But they may just notice the absence of M&S gourmet snacks from the kitchen table. In my humble opinion, this will no ordinary recession. It will be a real M&S of a recession.