What Is A Recession?

While recessions are hard to quantify, typically economists peg a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of a negative growth rate of gross domestic product (GDP)—which is the total value of everything that the country produces, as assessed by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

That can be an easy, measurable way to determine if you’re in a recession—which is why it’s a popular definition. However, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) chooses to be a bit less precise and more inclusive of various economic factors. It defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in GDP, real income, employment, industrial production and wholesale-retail sales.”

This is what we began to see in March 2020, in large part as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

What to look for: the signals of a recession

Here are some of the indicators that raise warning bells a recession might be imminent:


As mentioned, for some, this is “the” number, but it should just be one closely watched number among many as an indicator that the economy is wavering.

Yield curve

The “inverted yield curve” was the metric that threw everyone into a panic in 2019. It sounds very economist-y but a “yield” is just the interest rate on a bond. Typically the yield curve slopes up, indicating that investors want a higher interest rate on bonds they are holding for a longer time. But when it “inverts,” it indicates that investors are asking for a higher interest rate on shorter-term bonds, which means that they are feeling more confident about the long term than the short term. Historically, this inverted yield curve has come before a recession.

Employment data

The Department of Labor publishes a monthly report on the job market, which summarizes factors such as how many jobs were created in each sector, what percentage of the population was unemployed and how many hours were worked, both full-time and part-time. This last part is important because when businesses are worried, they are more apt to hire part-time labor and are liable to cut hours.

In the wake of the coronovirus outbreak, thousands of businesses were forced to shut down, at least temporarily. Unemployment claims surged as a result, and economists predict that the March jobs report will reflect that.

Confidence level

While economics appears to be cold, hard math, it’s also influenced by how people are feeling. There are a number of organizations that take a pulse on current sentiment, including The Conference Board, University of Michigan and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. When consumers feel unsteady, they are apt to pull back their spending, which causes sales to fall.

Leading Economic Index

The Leading Economic Index, another report from The Conference Board, is comprised of 10 components that include jobs data, building permits, stock prices and manufacturer orders, among other factors, to indicate how healthy the economy is and how buoyant businesses feel.



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