Recession By Any Other Name…

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Image by Mike Flynn from Pixabay

In a clear sign that the Biden administration is anxious about Thursday’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) report from the Commerce Department, the White House is making an all-out push this week around what constitutes a “recession.”

While it’s true there is no single steadfast criterion for a recession, by far the most common indicator used for recession has been two or more consecutive quarters of negative growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP.) That’s the accepted shorthand criterion that MBA students like me were taught in our macroeconomics classes. You’ll find it in many economic textbooksinvestment dictionaries, and nightly news segments.

And there’s the rub, because the US GDP declined in the first quarter by 1.6%, and signs are pointing to a decline again in the second quarter:

No politician wants to go into midterms in a recession.

Beyond purely political motivations, naming the beast can plausibly make it worse. That’s because when consumers feel anxious about future employment or wage prospects, they may postpone durable goods orders and cut down spending to the bare essentials. Ditto for corporate boards: as soon as they decide a contraction is here, many will rationally postpone investment and cut back hiring. Chief Executives of Bank of America and Goldman Sachs have each decided that a recession is likely here.

On Thursday, the White House began an effort to get out in front of the Thursday report, releasing a post — How Do Economists Determine Whether the Economy is In a Recession? — on the official White House blog. They note that the official recession scorekeeper is the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which defines it as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.” But there appears to be no statutory language that officially makes NBER the umpire. It’s a subjective term which has a long-accepted criterion, and the White House is arguing for a softer definition.

Clearly, Democrats do not wish to head into the midterm elections in an official “recession.” To that end, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was dispatched to Sunday news shows and downplayed the risk of recession, arguing that consumer spending is growing, that the economy has added an estimated 400,000 jobs, and still has a relatively low unemployment rate of just 3.6%.

Congress? They use the 2-Quarter Definition.

Interestingly, a definition of recession actually does exist in statutory code passed by Congress, in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985. It adopts the two-consecutive quarter definition:

Source: 2 USC 904, via @PhilWMagness

Warning Signs

Regardless of what we call it when, there are several economic warning signs.

Inflation, of course, is the metric that everyone feels every time they visit the grocery store. Inflation rose 9.1% year over year in June, which is the highest year over year increase in 40 years. Seattle-area prices are on an even bigger tear, jumping 10.1% since last year.

To try to get a handle on inflation, the Federal Reserve has been steadily hiking interest rates, which tends to slow demand. The slowing of demand typically relieves upward price pressure. But the Fed wants to hit the brakes without slowing it so much that it turns the economy into full-blown recession.

This is extremely challenging, because soaring inflation isn’t solely due to Fed actions, but also to factors out of their control, like disrupted supply chains which have caused scarcity of some key goods, the war in Ukraine, energy and particularly refinery constraints and capacity reductions, the trillions poured into the economy through the American Rescue Plan, and more. Inflation, in short, has many fathers.

The Federal Open Market Committee continues to raise interest rates, and the Federal Reserve is tightening access to money, signaling that still more is likely ahead. This does tend to put the brakes on growth, as money itself becomes more expensive to borrow or acquire.

The White House is leaning on a “strong labor market” as its main justification as to why we’re not really in a recession.

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tackled this question today, again emphasizing the “strength” of the labor market:

RECESSION:

Reporter: “Is the White House trying to change the common definition of a recession?”

Karine Jean-Pierre: “We’re seeing the strength of the economy and the labor market.” pic.twitter.com/0HLvHXEhNs— Forbes (@Forbes) July 25, 2022

Specifically on the hiring front, it’s a very interesting and mixed picture. The topline number of employment looks good at first glance. But while labor shortages exist in many essential roles (often lower-wage), the precise opposite appears to be true at the higher end of the wage spectrum.

Seattle presently has critical staff shortages in essential workers, particularly in public safety (police, firefighters, healthcare workers), and also ferry workersteachers and more. But growth in high-wage, high-tech knowledge-worker hiring is seeing a significant slowdown. In the past three months, tech firms like Microsoft and Google have announced slower hirings. And layoffs at startups appear to be growing. AppleMetaUber and Amazon have also joined the list. Venture funding of early-stage startups (Series A and B rounds) was down about 22% year over year in the second quarter, according to Pitchbook.

Yellen and Jean-Pierre remind us that the nation’s overall unemployment rate is low, as can be seen in this chart from the St. Louis Federal Reserve:

But the “low unemployment rate” masks a lot. The picture is far more complex, and less rosy than such a chart might initially suggest. That’s because overall unemployment measures the percentage of people in the workforce or seeking to be in the workforce who are unemployed, but the labor force participation rate (i.e., the percentage of all Americans who are in the workforce) must also be considered to get a true picture of America’s current workforce trends.

Looking at the labor force participation rate, notice that the pandemic brought a “Great Resignation,” and many Americans — particularly those in essential jobs (e.g., healthcare hospital workers, firefighters, teachers, warehouse workers, retail) still haven’t rejoined the workforce:

The noticeable decline in workforce participation rate suggests that people have been living off of household savings. And indeed, that appears to be the case:

These charts tell a story: many opted out of the workforce and have been living off of savings and/or asset appreciation. But these savings are usually tied to assets (stocks, bonds, home valuation etc.) which are likely to deflate as the economy contracts. One of the key risks that doesn’t get enough attention is that it may be very challenging for millions of Americans to try to re-enter the workforce during an economic downturn once they hit the end of their savings.

Is the “let’s talk about the definition of recession” simply a good-faith effort to introduce nuance back into the American political conversation, and curtail an even worse downturn by not naming it? Or is it a cynical attempt to sweep a major political liability under the rug by redefining a long-accepted word? You decide.

I’ll be sticking to the colloquial definition of recession — two or more consecutive quarters of negative GDP. But we should recognize that this is likely to be a recession with very unique characteristics, and won’t be easily mapped to recent ones.

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Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at stevemurch.com.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Having survived the 3 recessions of the 1980’s as a small business owner, rude awakenings are coming. Big adjustments in government spending next year eliminating do-good overreaches, and locally, a disaster in downtown without office workers propping up the city’s coffers.

    Thanks for voicing what we all SHOULD know. i cringe every time i see that Yellen is guesting on the Sunday shows as her spin isn’t credible or believable. She should have been the 2nd one out the door after Klain.

  2. When an administration pursues an energetically anti-prosperity agenda, what exactly did they think would happen? Orwellian parsing will not mask wrong and wrongheaded.

  3. Addendum: There have been ten times the U.S. economy has entered two or more successive quarters of decline. Every time that’s happened before, it’s been called a recession.

    Jobs are a lagging indicator of a decline in economic output, not a leading one. That’s because most employers try to preserve existing jobs as much as possible; firing is not only no fun, it can be quite expensive for a firm, and they often want to take other discretionary spending measures first.

  4. So, briefly – while there’s no reason in general for economic developments to naturally sort themselves into distinct types, such that a term like “recession” would be super meaningful, the current development is particularly unlike others for which we have used that word.

    Roses, the “by any other name” reference, belong to a natural taxonomy, via plant genetics, so “rose” has a clear meaning that we can take to the bank. With all the diversity of forms and colors, any rose is guaranteed to have such basic taxonomically useful traits as an inferior ovary, and presumably having many physiological things in common other roses.

    Economic developments have no such phylogenetic relationship, and while they might seem to be more classifiable than, say cloud forms — clouds that look like sailing ships, faces with noses, etc. — that’s only through the similarity of underlying circumstances. If we find ourselves in the same circumstances, seeing the same things come about, we can have some confidence that we’re looking at a similar phenomenon. Under novel circumstances, the best we can do is self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • It needn’t be similar to any other recession to be properly labeled a recession. For instance, the 2008 recession was due to very unique circumstances, yet that didn’t cause us from properly calling it a recession.

      Ten times in our past, we’ve had two or more successive quarters of GDP decline. Every single time, they’ve been labeled a recession. We’ve even had a couple of single-quarter declines labeled a recession.

      As to the White House claims of relatively low unemployment making this somehow different, take a close look at the unemployment chart above. We enter nearly every recession (the gray vertical bar) with relatively low unemployment. Unemployment is a lagging indicator, not a leading one. And that makes sense, because businesses are often loathe to make cutbacks — it’s expensive and difficult to rehire/retrain, and many like to be sure before taking this step.

  5. Update: This morning, the Commerce Department did indeed report that in Q2, GDP declined 0.9%.

    Axios: “US probably not in a recession”
    CNBC: “a strong recession signal”
    USAToday: “raising recession concerns”
    NY Times: “fanning fears of a recession”
    Washington Post: “what causes a recession?”
    POTUS Press Secretary: “transition to strong and steady growth”
    Paul Krugman: “Many news reports saying we’ve entered a ‘technical recession’ — which doesn’t exist”

    etc. And we have always been at war with Eastasia.

  6. Murch: “Why not call it a recession? That doesn’t have to mean it’s similar to anything we’ve called a recession before. Who would expect a word to mean the same thing, two times in a row?”

    More Krugman: “The U.S. economy is not currently in a recession. No, two quarters of negative growth aren’t, whatever you may have heard, the “official” or “technical” definition of a recession; that determination is made by a committee that has always relied on several indicators, especially job growth. And as Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, noted yesterday, the labor market still looks strong.”

    … and goes on to acknowledge that the economy is slowing, engineered to slow inflation.

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