Is this a recession and do we care?

Could well be, and yes you should.

There is no question that we’ve been experiencing an episode of economic stagnation in which key indicators of output and employment are not growing at their usual historical rates. Some analysts take the position that this is all that really matters, and whether it meets the formal definition of a “recession” is a pointless question of semantics. In support of such a position, there are a number of economic models quite popular among academics today that would warrant just such a perspective, in that they presuppose linear dynamic systems in which a “recession” is indeed just an arbitrary definition you would make up to characterize a string of bad luck.

I espoused the opposing view in a recent academic paper. I argued that recessions represent distinct and objectively identifiable episodes in which the usual dynamic factors that drive economic growth– technological progress, population growth, and capital accumulation– are replaced by a distinctly different dynamic in which lost income in some sectors feeds back into declines in output for others. One of the defining characteristics of this phenomenon is the rapid rise in the unemployment rate that we’ve seen in every historical recession. It’s very difficult to generate that kind of pattern from a system governed solely by linear dynamics, or interpret it from a perspective in which there’s nothing special going on during a true economic recession.

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I was therefore quite alarmed by the 5.5% unemployment rate reported yesterday by BLS. Although the rate itself remains moderate by historical standards, the increase last month is the biggest monthly change that we’ve observed in over 20 years. King Banian, Paul Krugman, and Howard Gold argue the numbers aren’t that bad, reflecting a surge in young job seekers rather than a big decline in employment per se. I personally share the more pessimistic interpretations of Jared Bernstein, Calculated Risk, Michael Mandel, and Mark Thoma; (you can find other interesting discussion from Phil Izzo, Barry Ritholtz, Andrew Samwick, and Angry Bear). It is true that the estimated May employment decline from the BLS payroll series was only 49,000, more moderate than the 285,000 drop implied by the household survey (from which the 5.5% unemployment rate is derived). But we’ve now seen 5 consecutive months in declining nonfarm employment as estimated from the BLS establishment survey, putting the overall level essentially back to where it was a year ago. Year-on-year employment stagnation is another thing we just don’t see outside of an economic recession.

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And while I’m collecting graphs that make me feel bearish, I can’t resist updating this one, despite Menzie’s cautions against reading too much into consumer sentiment numbers.

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And how would one reconcile this view that the economy may already be in a recession with the very strong gains in the stock market on Thursday? Oops… never mind.

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Originally published at Econbrowser and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "Is this a recession and do we care?"

  1. Guest   June 10, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    As many economists have predicted, the unemployment rate may not rise much during this recession compared to the previous ones. This may be due to factors like changing composition and growth of the labor force, labor participation rates and even the jobless recovery from the last recession.