The “Textbook Definition” of a Recession

Three weeks I wrote a blog post about how economists define a recession. I pretty quickly brushed aside the “two consecutive quarters of declining GDP,” since this is not the definition that NBER uses. But since that post (and thanks to a similar blog post from the White House the day after mine), there has been an ongoing debate among economists on social media about how we define recessions. And some economists and others in the media have insisted that the “two quarters” rule is a useful rule of thumb that is often used in textbooks.

It is absolutely true that you can find this “two quarters” rule mentioned in some economics textbooks. Occasionally, it is even part of the definition of a recession. But to try and move this debate forward, I collected as many examples as I could find from recent introductory economics textbooks. I tried to stick with the most recent editions to see what current thinking on the topic is among textbook authors, though I will also say a little bit about a few older editions after showing the results of my search.

Undoubtedly, I have missed a few principles textbooks (there are a lot of them!) so if you have a recent edition that I didn’t include, please share it and I’ll update the post accordingly. I also tried to stick with textbooks published in the last decade, though I made an exception for Samuelson and Nordhaus (2010) since Samuelson is so important to the history of principles textbooks (and his definition has changed, which I’ll discuss below).

But here’s my data on the 17 recent principles textbooks that I’ve found so far (send me more if you have them!). Thanks to Ninos Malek for gathering many of these textbooks and to my Twitter followers for some pointers too.

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Recession or not, the biggest GDP political football is 3 months away

US GDP fell for the second straight quarter according to statistics released this week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This means that by one common definition we’re now in a recession, which has ignited a debate about whether “two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth” is the best definition (as opposed to ‘when the NBER says there’s one’, like I generally teach and Jeremy argued for here, or something else).

Naturally this debate has political overtones, since the party in power would be blamed for a recession, so we’ve seen the White House CEA argue that we’re not in a recession, many on the other side argue that we are, and plentiful hypocrisy from people who should know better.

But in political terms, the fight over the binary “are we in a recession” call won’t be the big economic factor in November’s elections- that will be inflation and GDP, especially 3rd quarter GDP. One of the oldest and best predictors of US elections is the Fair Model, which uses inflation and the number of recent “strong growth quarters”. Fair’s update following the recent Q2 GDP announcement states:

the predicted vote share for the Democrats is 46.70, which compares to 48.99 in October. The smaller predicted vote share for the Democrats is due to two fewer strong growth quarters and slightly higher inflation

By Election Day we’ll have 3 more months of economic data making it clear whether inflation is getting under control and whether economic activity is picking back up or continuing to decline. Monthly data releases on inflation and unemployment will be closely watched, but the most discussed release will likely be third quarter GDP. It will summarize 3 months instead of just one, it will be of huge relevance to the debate over how severe the recession is or whether we’re even in one, and it will likely be released less than two weeks before election day. The NBER almost certainly won’t weigh in by then; they tend to take over a year to date recessions, not adjudicate debates in real time.

So when BEA does release their Q3 GDP estimate in late October, what will it say? Markets currently estimate at least a 75% chance it will be positive (they had estimated a 36% chance of positive Q2 GDP just before the latest announcement). That sounds high to me, the yield curve is still inverted and I bet investment will continue to drag, but forecasting exact GDP numbers is hard. Its a much easier bet that whatever the number turns out to be will loom large in political debates just before the elections. Perhaps we’ll get the Q3 GDP growth number that would make for the most chaotic debate: 0.0%.

Dating Recessions: 19th Century Edition

Last week my post was on the definition of a recession and argued against using the “two quarters of declining GDP standard.” Little did I know that the very next day, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors would write a blog post on this topic the very next day (essentially taking the same position as I did). The CEA post set of a long discussion on Twitter, which even spilled over into the national media.

I don’t want to get into that debate here today. Instead, let’s look at the history of dating business cycles, specifically in the 19th century. Forget waiting a few months or even a year for an official NBER announcement: the first attempt to date business cycles was going back over 100 years! In going over this history, perhaps we can learn something about our current debates over recessions, but I think the history is interesting in its own right (it’s also a great example of how we can get better data and use it to answer important questions).

I’ll give a brief history here, but read this Romer and Romer conference paper to get an excellent, full history of the NBER’s business cycle dating. The NBER was essentially found as an institution to study business cycles. One of the first major publications was Willard Thorp’s Business Annals, published in 1926. It was groundbreaking study, which not only provided annual business cycle dates for the entire history of the US, it also did so for 16 other countries for roughly the same time period!

While such an undertaking was impressive, the methods used were pretty unsophisticated from the hindsight of almost 100 years later. First, these are annual estimates, not monthly or even quarterly. Monthly estimates would come later, first appearing in Burns and Mitchell’s 1946 volume Measuring Business Cycles. Those monthly estimates began in 1854, and there are the same ones you will find on the NBER website today, essentially unmodified by even a single month for the late 19th century.

But what of the first half of the 19th century? How did Thorp date recessions?

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Are We in A Recession?

The truth is, we don’t know. But let’s be clear: whether we are or not doesn’t depend on the 2nd quarter GDP report. Though two consecutive quarters of declining GDP is often cited as the definition of a recession, it’s not the definition economists use. And with good reason.

Instead, the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee uses this definition: “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months.” And they explain why GDP is not their preferred measure, which includes several reasons but this one seems most germane to our current moment: “[the] definition includes the phrase, ‘a significant decline in economic activity.’ Thus real GDP could decline by relatively small amounts in two consecutive quarters without warranting the determination that a peak had occurred.”

If not GDP, what do they look at? I’ll get into more detail later, but in short, they look at monthly measures of income, consumption, employment, sales, and production (a direct measure of production, which GDP is not — it’s a proxy).

However, the American public seems convinced that we are in a recession. The most recent poll I can find on this is from mid-June, which is useful because (as we’ll see below) we have most of the relevant measures of the economy for June 2022 already. In that poll, 56% of Americans say we are in a recession. And while there is some partisan bent to the responses, even 45% of Democrats seem to think we are in a recession. For those that say we are in a recession, 2/3 cite inflation as the primary indicator that we are in a recession.

Already here we can see the difference between the general public and NBER: the rate of inflation is not one of the measures that NBER considers when defining a recession. So, what are the measures they use?

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The Recession Is Over! (15 months ago)

Lately there has been lots of both good and bad news about the pandemic and its impact on the economy. But here’s once piece of good news you might have missed: the recession which began in February 2020 ended in April. And not April 2021… it ended in April 2020. At least, that’s according to the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, which made the announcement last week.

The 2020 recession of just 2 months is by far the shortest on record. NBER maintains a list of recessions with monthly dates going back to 1854 (there are annual business cycles dates before that, including important modern revisions of the original estimates, but the monthly series starts in 1854). In that timeframe, there have been 7 recessions in the 6-8 month range, but nothing this short. Still, it was mostly definitely a recession, as unemployment briefly spiked to levels not seen since the Great Depression. But only for 2 months. Keep in mind that the first part of the Great Depression last 43 months.

Unemployment Rate, 1948-present

But how can this be? Is the recession really over? There are still about 6-7 million fewer people working than before the pandemic began. Lots of businesses are still hurting. The unemployment rate is still 2 full percentage points above pre-pandemic levels. How in the world can we say the recession ended 15 months ago?

To answer that question, it helps to know what NBER and most macroeconomists mean by a “recession” — essentially, it is used interchangeably with “contraction.” It means the economy, by a broad array of measures (NBER uses about 10 measures), is shrinking — or we might say, going in the wrong direction. The only other option, at least in the NBER chronology, is an expansion — when the economy is going in the right direction.

Does an economic expansion mean that everything is fine the economy?

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Economic Research on COVID-19

The past 12 months has been dominated by COVID-19, the related recession, the government response, and other matters. But it has not just dominated our lives, it has also dominated new research, including research by economists!

Working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research are one place to track on-going research by economists. While not all economic research is released as an NBER working paper (there are other series, and some economists just post them on their own website or department page), the volume of NBER papers should tell us something about the trends.

Here’s a chart showing the weekly NBER working papers that are in some way related to COVID-19. The first batch of three papers was released in late February, one long year ago. The second batch of nine papers came one month later. Since then, there have been papers released every single week, with the exception of the week of Christmas.

In total, there have 373 papers released that relate to COVID-19. The peak comes in late May and early June, with 61 papers released in a 4-week period and 21 of those papers coming out on May 25 alone. Since the May-June peak, we’ve seen a slow decline in papers on COVID-19, and we are now at our lowest level, with just 14 papers released in the past 4 weeks.

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