The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) defines a recession as a significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale retail trade. It is caused by a chain of events in the economy, such as disruptions to the supply chain, a financial crisis, or a world event.
A recession can also be triggered after an inflationary period. When inflation increases, central banks raise interest rates to slow the economy with the goal of bringing down inflation. With higher interest rates, the probability of a recession increases, leading to layoffs, fewer jobs, and decreased consumer and corporate spending, among other effects found in a slowing economy.
As companies and consumers become anxious about the economy, they hold on to their money and cut spending. Businesses are forced to reallocate resources, scale back production, limit losses, and lay off employees as the economic downturn intensifies. Trends during a recession include an increase in the unemployment rate and a decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) for two consecutive quarters.
- A recession is a trend of simultaneously slowing business and consumer activity, leading to negative growth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) and other data series, such as the unemployment rate, wage growth, and the like.
- Financial, psychological, and real economic factors can cause recessions. such as supply chain disruptions or a financial crisis.
- The recession in 2020 was affected by COVID-19 and the preceding decade of extreme monetary stimulus that left the economy vulnerable to economic shocks.
- As of November 2022, the likelihood of a recession looms, as evidenced by an inverted yield curve, meaning that investors expect short-term interest rates to be above long-term rates, which is indicative of a bearish short-term outlook, potentially resulting in a recession.
Signs of a Recession
The standard macroeconomic definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. When this occurs, private businesses often scale back production and try to limit exposure to systematic risk. Measurable levels of spending and investment are likely to drop, and a natural downward pressure on prices may occur as aggregate demand slumps. GDP declines, and unemployment rates rise because companies lay off workers to reduce costs.
At the microeconomic level, firms experience declining margins during a recession. When revenue—whether from sales or investment—declines, firms look to cut their least efficient activities. For example, a firm might stop producing low-margin products or reduce employee compensation. It might also renegotiate with creditors to obtain temporary interest relief. Unfortunately, declining margins may force businesses to reduce employment to cut costs further.
A range of financial, psychological, and real economic factors are at play in any given recession.
Causes of Recession
The significant economic theories of recession focus on financial, psychological, and fundamental economic factors that can lead to the cascade of business failures that constitute a recession. Some theories look at long-term economic trends that lay the groundwork for a recession in the years leading up to it. Others look only at the immediately visible factors that appear at the onset of a recession. Many or all of these various factors may be at play in any given recession.
Financial factors can contribute to an economy’s fall into a recession, as during the 2007–2008 U.S. financial crisis. The overextension of credit and debt on risky loans and marginal borrowers can lead to an enormous buildup of risk in the financial sector. The expansion of the supply of money and credit in the economy by the Federal Reserve and the banking sector can drive this process to extremes, stimulating risky asset price bubbles.
Artificially suppressed interest rates during the boom times leading up to a recession can distort the structure of relationships among businesses and consumers. It happens by making business projects, investments, and consumption decisions that are interest rate-sensitive, such as buying a bigger house or launching a risky long-term business expansion, appear much more appealing than they ought to be. The failure of these decisions when rates rise to reflect reality constitutes a major component of the rash of business failures that make up a recession such as that of 2007–2008.
Psychological Factors of a Recession
Psychological factors are also frequently cited by economists for their contribution to recessions. The excessive exuberance of investors during the boom years brings the economy to its peak. The reciprocal doom-and-gloom pessimism that sets in after a market crash, at a minimum, amplifies the effects of real economic and financial factors as the market swings.
Moreover, because all economic actions and decisions are always forward-looking to some degree, the subjective expectations of investors, businesses, and consumers are often involved in the inception and spread of an economic downturn.
Interest rates are a key link between the purely financial sector and the real economic preferences and decisions of businesses and consumers.
Economic Factors of a Recession
Real changes in economic fundamentals, beyond financial accounts and investor psychology, also make critical contributions to a recession. Some economists explain recessions solely due to fundamental economic shocks, such as disruptions in supply chains, and the damage they can cause to a wide range of businesses.
Shocks affecting vital industries such as energy or transportation can have such widespread effects that they cause many companies across the economy to retrench and cancel investment and hiring plans simultaneously, with ripple effects on workers, consumers, and the stock market.
There are economic factors that can also be tied back into financial markets. Market interest rates represent the cost of financial liquidity for businesses and the time preferences of consumers, savers, and investors for present vs. future consumption. In addition, a central bank’s artificial suppression of interest rates during the boom years before a recession distorts financial markets and business and consumption decisions. All of these factors may cause a recession over time.
In turn, the preferences of consumers, savers, and investors place limits on how far such an artificially stimulated boom can proceed. These manifest as economic constraints on continued growth in labor market shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, and spikes in commodity prices (which lead to inflation). When not enough resources can be made available to support all of the business investment plans, a rash of business failures may occur due to increased production costs. This situation may be enough to tip the economy into a recession.
Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Economy
In February 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) announced that, according to its data, the United States was in a recession due to the economic shock of the widespread disruption of global and domestic supply chains and direct damage to businesses across all industries. These events were caused by the COVID-19 epidemic and the public health response.
The pandemic-related recession, according to NBER, ended in April 2020, but the financial hardship caused by the pandemic is still affecting Americans.
Risks of Recession as of August 2023
In 2022, the Federal Reserve (and other major central banks) raised interest rates aggressively to combat inflation. In November 2022, inflation in the U.S. was at 6.2%, well above the Fed’s target for inflation of around 2%. The Fed incrementally increased interest rates throughout 2022 and early 2023, and many economists expected a recession in 2023.
By August 2023, a number of economic data points were positive, including:
- A rate of inflation down to just 3% in June 2023
- Second quarter (2Q) GDP growth of 2.4%
- A strong job market in which jobs are still rising
- Historically low unemployment at 3.5% in July 2023
The Fed slowed the pace of its interest rate increases in 2023, aiming for a final fed funds target rate of 5%, also referred to as the terminal rate. As of August 2023, the effective federal funds rate was 5.33%.
Higher interest rates make everything from home mortgage rates to credit card rates rise, which eats away at consumer spending, ultimately the key driver of U.S. economic activity. By easing interest rates while inflation and unemployment remain low, the Fed hopes aims to deliver a soft landing (lower inflation and a minor slowdown in the U.S. economy), rather than a hard landing (where inflation comes down at the expense of economic growth and employment). A hard landing would be likely to result in a recession.
We will continue to pay special attention to the state of consumer spending, unemployment, and job creation as the main bellwethers of a recession.
Of note, there are a number of exogenous factors, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, which could result in sustained higher oil and natural gas prices and a further loss of grain supplies. This in turn could further undermine the global economy, which would result in increased pressure on the U.S. and other major economies.
What Is a Recession?
A recession is when economic activity turns negative for a period of time, the unemployment rate rises, and consumer and business activity are cut back due to expectations of a weak growth environment ahead. While this is a vicious cycle, it is also a normal part of the overall business cycle, with the only question being how deep and long a recession may last.
Is the Fed Still Raising Interest Rates?
The Fed paused rate hikes in June 2023 to assess the impact of rate hikes on the economy. It then raised rates again in July 2023, to 5.3%. Fed policymakers expect to raise rates further before the end of 2023, though the number of increases will likely slow compared to 2022 and early 2023.
Do Prices Go Down In a Recession?
Prices often go down in a recession because people are buying less, which means businesses lower prices to encourage consumer spending. Not all prices decrease, however. Some items, such as food and gas, may see price increases, especially if there is a decreased supply or increased demand.
The Bottom Line
Recessions are caused by a multitude of factors, with higher interest rates usually cited as the primary cause of a recession. At the moment, the market is also concerned with nonroutine events, such as the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact on energy and commodity prices, which have fed into higher inflation. To combat inflation, the Fed and other central banks have been aggressively raising interest rates to bring inflation down to their target of around 2%.
In raising short-term interest rates, now around 5.33%, the Fed may be overly aggressive and overshoot an interest rate that is appropriate to bring down inflation, sending the economy into a recession. The hope is for a soft landing, where interest rates reach a level to bring down inflation and avoid a recession. The alternative is a hard landing, where the Fed raises rates too much and triggers a recession.