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%.

Is the Bottom Quartile Already in Recession?

I heard on a radio interview that spending by the bottom quartile is way down in 2022, while it is holding up merrily for the upper two quartiles. My mind jumped to the thesis:

“Hmm, the bottom quartile probably (proportionately) felt the benefit of the three COVID stimulus packages more, plus they would have benefited more, proportionately, from the enhanced 2020-2021 unemployment benefits, which (I gathered from anecdotal observations) often paid them more for staying home than they used to receive for working. But…by 2022, all that extra money may be running out.”

I spent some time poking around the internet, trying to find some pre-made figures or tables to support or disprove this thesis. What I found tended to support it, but this is not rigorous data-mining. So, for what it is worth, here are some  charts.

First, about the spending in 2022. This chart indicates that discretionary service spending by the bottom 40% income cohort is indeed down sharply in  2022, and now sits a little lower than a  year ago, while the upper 20% cohort is spending actually more than a year ago.  Spending by the middle 40% trended up in 2H 2021, then back down in 1H 2022, to end about even over the past 12 months:

Discretionary service consumption by income cohort. (I don’t what the units are for the y-axis, but presumably they show the trends). Source: Earnest Research, as of June 30, 2022, as reproduced by Blackrock.

And what about 2020-2021? The next two charts indicate (a) that consumer spending was HIGHER in 2021 that it was pre-COVID for the bottom income quartile, even though (b) their employment in 2021 remained some 20% LOWER than pre-COVID. Looks to me like a lot of spending of stimmie checks was going on in 2021, but (see above) that money has run out in 2022.

Some reader here may have access to a more consistent data set, so I am happy to see this thesis tested further.

Consumer Spending by Income Quartile (Showing higher spending by bottom quartile following stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment payments in 2020-2021)  Source: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19: Evidence from a New Public Database Built Using Private Sector Data, Stepner et al. (2022).

Employment Changes by Wage Quartile ( Showing employment for the bottom quartile in most of 2021 was some 20% lower that pre-COVID)  Source: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19: Evidence from a New Public Database Built Using Private Sector Data, Stepner et al. (2022)   

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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It’s Still Hard to Find Good Help These Days

Consumption is the largest component of GDP. In 2019, it composed 67.5% of all spending in the US. During the Covid-19 recession, real consumption fell about 18% and took just over a year to recover. But consumption of services, composing 69% of consumption spending, hadn’t recovered almost two years after the 2020 pre-recession peak.  For those keeping up with the math, service consumption composed 46.5% of the economic spending in 2019.

We can decompose service consumption even further. The table below illustrates the breakdown of service consumption expenditures in 2019.

I argued in my previous post that the Covid-19 pandemic was primarily a demand shock insofar as consumption was concerned, though potential output for services may have fallen somewhat. When something is 67.5% of the economy, ‘somewhat’ can be a big deal. So, below I breakdown services into its components to identify which experienced supply or demand shocks. Macroeconomists often get accused of over-reliance on aggregates and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I succumb to the trope (I might, in fact be a monkey’s uncle).

Before I start again with the graphs, what should we expect? Let’s consider that the recession was a pandemic recession. We should expect that services which could be provided remotely to experience an initial negative demand shock and to have recovered quickly. We should expect close-proximity services to experience a negative demand and supply shock due to the symmetrical risk of contagion. Finally, we should expect that services with elastic demand to experience the largest demand shocks (If you want additional details for what the above service categories describe, then you can find out more here, pg. 18).

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This Time was Way Different

The financial crisis recession that started in late 2007 was very different from the 2020 pandemic recession. Even now, 15 years later, we don’t all agree on the causes of the 2007 recession. Maybe it was due to the housing crisis, maybe due to the policy of allowing NGDP to fall, or maybe due to financial contagion. I watched Vernon Smith give a lecture in 2012 in which he explained that it was a housing crisis. Scott Sumner believes that a housing sectoral decline would have occurred, and that the economy-wide deep recession and subsequent slow recovery was caused by poor monetary policy.

Everyone agrees, however, that the 2007 recession was fundamentally different from the 2020 recession. The latter, many believe, reflected a supply shock or a technology shock. Performing social activities, including work, in close proximity to others became much less safe. As a result, we traded off productivity for safety.

The policy responses to each of the two were also different. In 2020, monetary policy was far more targeted in its interventions and the fiscal stimulus was much bigger. I’ll save the policy response differences for another post. In this post, I want to display a few graphs that broadly reflect the speed and magnitude of the recoveries. Because the recessions had different causes, I use broad measures that are applicable to both.

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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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