What we’ve all been fearing for months, but nobody would officially say, has now been validated. The U.S. economy is in a recession.
In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research says that the economy has been in a recession for a year now.
The Business Cycle Dating Committee of NBER, a private, nonprofit research organization, maintains a chronology of the beginning and ending dates (months and quarters) of U.S. recessions. The committee of academic economists, who determine business cycles, met by phone November 28 and later announced its determination.
According to the committee a peak in economic activity occurred in the U.S. economy in December 2007. The peak marks the end of the expansion that began in November 2001 and the beginning of a recession. The expansion lasted 73 months; the previous expansion of the 1990s lasted 120 months.
Some economists say that a recession occurs when the gross domestic product, the total output of good and services, declines for two consecutive quarters, which it did in the third quarter of this year and is expected to do so again in the fourth quarter.
The NBER committee uses more comprehensive and precise measures, including payroll employment. According to them, a recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in production, employment, real income, and other indicators. A recession begins when the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends when the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion.
Because a recession is a broad contraction of the economy, not confined to one sector, the committee emphasizes economy-wide measures of economic activity. The committee believes that domestic production and employment are the primary conceptual measures of economic activity.
The committee views the payroll employment measure, which is based on a large survey of employers, as the most reliable comprehensive estimate of employment. This series reached a peak in December 2007 and has declined every month since then.
The committee believes that the two most reliable comprehensive estimates of aggregate domestic production are normally the quarterly estimate of real Gross Domestic Product and the quarterly estimate of real Gross Domestic Income, both produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
In concept, the two should be the same, because sales of products generate income for producers and workers equal to the value of the sales. However, because the measurement on the product and income sides proceeds somewhat independently, the two actual measures differ by a statistical discrepancy.
The product-side estimates fell slightly in 2007Q4, rose slightly in 2008Q1, rose again in 2008Q2, and fell slightly in 2008Q3. The income-side estimates reached their peak in 2007Q3, fell slightly in 2007Q4 and 2008Q1, rose slightly in 2008Q2 to a level below its peak in 2007Q3, and fell again in 2008Q3.
Thus, the currently available estimates of quarterly aggregate real domestic production do not speak clearly about the date of a peak in activity.
Other series considered by the committee—including real personal income less transfer payments, real manufacturing and wholesale-retail trade sales, industrial production, and employment estimates based on the household survey—all reached peaks between November 2007 and June 2008.
The committee determined that the decline in economic activity in 2008 met the standard for a recession. All evidence other than the ambiguous movements of the quarterly product-side measure of domestic production confirmed that conclusion. Many of these indicators, including monthly data on the largest component of GDP, consumption, have declined sharply in recent months.
The committee’s primary role is to maintain a monthly chronology of the business cycle. For this purpose, the committee mainly relies on monthly indicators. It also considers quarterly indicators and maintains a quarterly chronology. In its deliberations, the committee relied on a number of monthly and quarterly economic indicators published by government agencies.