How Bad Will the Next Recession Be?

While we may know that a recession is coming, a recent Washington Postarticles argues that the timing and severity is difficult to predict. Still, it says, we can look for clues based on what has happened in the past.

Here are some highlights:

  • According to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average duration of the 11 recessions that have occurred since WWII has been 11.1 months, with the shortest among them lasting 6 months (1980) and the longest lasting 18 months (2007-2009). On average, data shows that the economy “typically shrinks about 1.4 percent over two quarters before growth resumes” and that stock markets similarly begin recovery in that time—after suffering a dip of about 7%.
  • Jobs take longer to regroup after recessions, the article points out, with unemployment tending to rise for 15 -16 months before the labor market hits bottom.
  • The article reports findings in a Goldman Sachs Research study from earlier this year that sorted the past century of U.S. recessions into five categories:
  • Industry: troubles in the manufacturing sector led to at least three recessions in the first half of the 20th century.
  • Inflation: Price increases have remained fairly restrained during the current expansion compared to the early 1980s when “two recessions followed then-Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker’s successful but costly efforts to tame double-digit inflation by increasing interest rates.”
  • Oil: Since the 1973 OPEC embargo, gasoline and other energy products account for a smaller share of consumer spending, and “the fracking revolution” allows U.S. producers to ramp up production to take advantage of price increases.
  • Financial: The study found this to be the most consistent factor in recent recessions and see it as a continuing threat. The Goldman analysts write, however, that such a threat seems to be “in abeyance at present, partly because of crisis-induced caution on the part of households, firms and regulators.”
  • Fiscal related downturns, which typically follow a major war alongside a drop in military spending and “economic transitions to peacetime footing.” Of today’s political climate, the Goldman report states, “With rising political polarization and uncertainty, broader fiscal policy could evolve into a risk that at the very least makes a future recession worse.”

The article concludes, “It’s hard to know what will finally end this expansion. It could be death by a million cuts—tariffs, the slowing global economy, a hangover from the Trump-tax-cut sugar high, a slowing labor market.” If it is triggered by a slow decline, it explains, the recession might not feel too severe. On the other hand, it suggests, if businesses and consumers around the world start to panic, “the outcome could be much worse.”