Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Another year, another non-recession.

How long can this go on?

It has been a decade since the so-called Great Recession bottomed out in June 2009. Since then the U.S. economy has experienced a remarkable 125 months of uninterrupted growth, breaking the 120-month record set by the 1991-2001 expansion.

Ten years of steady climbing has had a predictable effect on cruise sales. According to executives of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which recently reported third quarter results, things couldn't be better.

"I can't stress enough the underlying strength of the business," Frank Del Rio, CEO of NCLH said in a conference call with analysts.

Despite doing nothing strategically to extend the booking window, it expanded by 10% in the third quarter, Del Rio said, "underscoring consumers' underlying appetite for cruising on our three brands."

Cruise lines are at that happy point where, at least in North America, an abundance of bookings is creating scarcity, driving prices higher, and stampeding more consumers to book even earlier to lock-in early booking savings.

All good things come to an end, to be sure, but the chances of them coming to an end in 2020 aren't that likely.

In its monthly survey of economists for November, the Wall Street Journal found that only 34.2% of economists expect the expansion to end in 2020, with another 29.3% saying it will end in 2021.

One of the main drivers of a classic recession, inflation, is expected to clock in at 1.9% in November, just below the Federal Reserve's target. The unemployment rate next month is forecast at 3.6%, meaning most of the people who want a job have one, providing fuel for further consumer spending.

Economists used to talk about the Goldilocks economy - not too hot, not too cold - and without much fanfare, we may be in one. But one troubling footnote is that the growth in the current expansion - 25% since 2009 - has been only half as strong as the 42.6% growth in the 1991-2001 period.

"It's been the slowest recovery in American history," said RCCL chairman Richard Fain in a talk at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld event last week.

Fain said that expansions don't die of old age; there has to be a trigger, which right now isn't blindingly obvious to most observers. He said that when the recession does come, the cruise industry will do okay.

He recalled that the Oasis of the Seas, then the biggest cruise ship in the world with a startling capacity for 5,400 guests, was delivered in 2009 when the economy was flat on its back.

"The truth is it did beautifully even in 2009. Oasis was gangbusters, and it was because it met a need," Fain said.

He added that it was important that Royal Caribbean's cost-cutting during the last recession didn't cut from the guest-facing functions.

"Lots of businesses say 'Oh business is bad, we're not selling so many shoes, so we'll cut costs and lay off some people.' If we fill our ships, we can't let one customer feel like we've cut back in order to make our earnings look better," Fain said.

"We're going to continue to function, continue to operate, continue to market, because it's the right thing to do to be in business five years from now," Fain added. "And everybody in this room will remember what we do."

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