HICKS: The end of a recession doesn't feel like one

September 25, 2010

This week, the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Business Cycle Dating Committee called the recession over in June 2009.

Faithful readers will recall that I have long felt the recession would formally be considered over early last summer. It is actually pretty easy to see in hindsight, but to many Americans, the recession doesn’t feel over. That’s normal, too.

The formal definition of a recession is the period that lasts from the peak to the bottom of the business cycle. In other words, a recession lasts from the last day of the boom through the bottom of the bust. At the beginning of a recession, times are still good (I missed the start by the better part of a year). When it is over, things are still bad, as evidenced by more than a year of static or climbing national unemployment rates and weak demand for goods and services.

It is good to look back on the recession and think about where we’ve been and how this recession stacked up against others. First, it was longer than any we’ve had since the Great Depression, but just barely. The decline in national production (our gross domestic product) was 1.8 percent. That’s the same drop we saw in the 1990-1991 recession, which lasted only two quarters, but much better than the 1980 recession, when the total economy shrank 2.5 percentage points.

The inflation rate has remained tepid (thanks in part to much lower house prices). In this respect, this has been the mildest of post-war recessions. Surprising to most, the average unemployment rate during the recession was lower than in both the 1980 and 1981-1982 recessions. And, while the unemployment rate continues to rise after the recession ended, it remains a good point below the 1981-1982 peak quarter.

The Misery Index during this last recession marked it as nearly the mildest on record. The Misery Index is the sum of inflation and unemployment, known also as Jimmy Carter’s great contribution to public policy.

The real factor that made this such a difficult recession was that it disproportionately cut the wealth of more than half of American families that both own a home and have stock-market-based retirement funds. Here, the loss of value was matched only by the Great Depression and hit far more households. But the real pain seems to have come after the recession.

The slow and uneven job growth combined with shockingly fast productivity growth eerily signals that much of our economy has gone through a structural change. While unemployment rates for college graduates runs 4.6 percent, it is well over 10 percent for high school grads.

It is still too early to tell, but some of the warning signs in place suggest many of the 8 million jobs lost in this economy won’t come back in the places and occupations in which they were lost. If that is so, and I am afraid it is, it heralds a long and painful readjustment.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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