What is a recession, after all?
To take some ambiguity away from what a recession really is, let’s define it. A recession is most commonly defined as two consecutive quarters of declines in quarterly real GDP. The National Bureau of Economic Research offers a more detailed definition:
“A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion. Expansion is the normal state of the economy; most recessions are brief and they have been rare in recent decades.”
The Great Recession lasted 18 months and was triggered by the bursting of “an enormous speculative housing bubble,” generated by a perfect storm of low interest rates, lenient lending standards, ineffective mortgage regulation and lacking loan securitization, according to a 2011 study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
While devastating to the economy and to many people and industries, which are still struggling to recover today, a lot was learned from the Great Recession, and many changes have been implemented in both policy and regulation to protect the country from a similar crash.
A recession is widespread economic decline that lasts for at least six months. A depression is a more severe decline that lasts for several years. For example, a recession lasts for 18 months, while the most recent depression lasted for a decade. There have been 33 recessions since 1854. There’s only been one depression since then, The Great Depression of 1929. It was actually a combination of the recession that lasted from August 1929 to March 1933, and the one from May 1937 to June 1938. If you are wondering if we are in a depression or recession, it’s probably a recession.
An economic depression is a severe downturn that lasts several years.
Fortunately, the U.S. economy has only experienced one economic depression. That’s the Great Depression of 1929. It lasted 10 years. The decline in the gross domestic product growth rates were of a magnitude not seen since:
1930 -8.6 percent
1931 -6.5 percent
1932 -13.1 percent
1933 -1.3 percent
1938 -3.4 percent
During the Depression, the unemployment rate was 25 percent. Wages fell 42 percent. Total U.S. economic output fell from $103 billion to $55 billion. World trade plummeted 65 percent as measured in dollars. The effects of the Great Depression may still be felt today.
How does that compare to recessions since then? During the financial crisis of 2008, economic growth plummeted. But it never came close to the severity of the Great Depression. Although there were some steep downturns during a few quarters, there were no years where the economy contracted as severely as in the Great Depression. According to the GDP statistics, the economy contracted 0.3 percent in 2008. In 2009, it shrank 3.5 percent.
The 2001 recession had some bad quarters, but no years that were negative. In 1991, the economy contracted 0.2 percent. The 1980 to 1982 recession saw two negative years: 1980 was down 0.3 percent, and 1982 was down 1.2 percent. During the 1973 to 1975 recession, the economy contracted 0.6 percent in 1974 and 0.2 percent in 1975.
In fact, the closest the country has come to a depression was right after World War II. Economic engines struggled to readjust to peacetime production. The economy contracted four years in a row.
1945 -1.1 percent
1946 -10.9 percent
1947 -0.9 percent
1949 -0.5 percent
An economic depression is so cataclysmic, it almost takes a perfect storm of events to create one. In fact, many experts say that contractionary monetary policy aggravated the Depression. The Federal Reserve rightly sought to slow down the stock market bubble in the late 1920s. But once the stock market crashed, the Fed kept raising interest rates to defend the gold standard. Instead of pumping money into the economy and increasing the money supply, the Fed allowed the money supply to fall 30 percent.
This created massive deflation, where prices dropped 10 percent each year. As people expected lower prices, they delayed purchases. Real estate prices plummeted 25 percent. People lost their homes. It was a devastating decade, which according to the Great Depression timeline, began in August 1929 and ended in June 1938.
Once the downward spiral of an economic depression takes hold, it is hard to stop. The “New Deal” created many government programs to end the Depression, but government programs alone couldn’t do the trick. Unemployment remained in the double-digits until 1941, when the U.S. entry into World War II created defense-related jobs. Prodtion. That’s because new capacity had to be built.
The stock market has always been considered a leading economic indicator, and the health of the economy was certainly reflected in last year’s double-digit positive performance across all major indexes (Dow +25 percent, S&P 500 +21 percent and Nasdaq +28 percent). Circling back to our original question, can this upward momentum continue or should we be on the lookout for a significant stock market correction?
In November, Vanguard Group, one of the largest investment management companies in the world, released research suggesting a 70-percent likelihood of a U.S. stock market correction. However, the prediction was not delivered with alarm, but rather with the intention of preparing investors for an impending downturn and setting right expectations for what the future could look like.
It’s important to note, however, that a stock market correction doesn’t mean we’ve entered a recession. A natural pullback allows the market to consolidate before going toward higher highs. It’s a natural function in the market cycle.
Other factors — such as interest rates and inflation, which are both expected to rise in 2018 — will have more of an impact on a possible recession in the economy. But in usual cautionary fashion, the Federal Reserve is likely to only raise rates slightly, and even inflation is expected to maintain a snail’s pace in upturn.
Many people worry that the world could experience another economic depression. As long as you understand the severity of a real depression, you will see we have come nowhere close in recent years.
First, a depression on the scale of 1929 could not happen exactly the way it did before. Many laws and government agencies were put in place because of the Great Depression. Their express purpose was to prevent any more of that type of cataclysmic economic pain.
Second, central banks around the world, including the Federal Reserve, are so much more aware of the importance of stimulating the economy with expansive monetary policy. In fact, central banks did act in a coordinated fashion to prevent a depression in October 2008 by bailing out banks. They lowered interest rates, pumping credit and liquidity into the global financial system. This also restored confidence among panicked bankers, who were unwilling to lend to each other for fear of taking on each other’s subprime mortgages as collateral.
Third, the Fed has adopted a policy of inflation rate targeting to prevent the deflation associated with a global depression. As a result, the Fed will continue expansive monetary policy to keep the core inflation rate at 2 percent.
There is only so much that monetary policy can do without fiscal policy. In 2009, the economic stimulus bill helped prevent a depression by stimulating the economy. But the incredible size of the national debt limits further government spending. Working together, monetary and fiscal policy can prevent another global depression. It is highly unlikely that the Great Depression could happen again.
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