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Posts Tagged ‘economic statistics used to measure recession and depression’

Are We in the Early Stages of a Depression?

Posted by Larry Doyle on July 23rd, 2009 8:48 AM |

At the request of a reader (hat tip to kbdabear), I have been asked to comment on a report produced by Sprott Asset Management of Toronto, Ontario entitled It’s the Real Economy, Stupid. The writers, Eric Sprott and David Franklin, believe:

We are now in the early stages of a depression. The economic indicators we follow to track real economic activity are all signaling a slowdown of massive proportions. You wouldn’t know it reading the mainstream papers of course – they all focus on the relative decline in the slowdown’s intensity. Reading about the slowdown ‘slowing down’ is not the same as growth however, and does not warrant excitement in our opinion.

Are we in the early stages of a depression or are we merely experiencing the worst recession since the 1930s? Let’s define these two economic terms.

Recession? Depression? What’s the Difference?

The standard newspaper definition of a recession is a decline in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for two or more consecutive quarters.This definition is unpopular with most economists for two main reasons. First, this definition does not take into consideration changes in other variables. For example this definition ignores any changes in the unemployment rate or consumer confidence. Second, by using quarterly data this definition makes it difficult to pinpoint when a recession begins or ends. This means that a recession that lasts ten months or less may go undetected.

Recession: The BCDC Definition

The Business Cycle Dating Committee at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) provides a better way to find out if there is a recession is taking place. This committee determines the amount of business activity in the economy by looking at things like employment, industrial production, real income and wholesale-retail sales. They define a recession as the time when business activity has reached its peak and starts to fall until the time when business activity bottoms out. When the business activity starts to rise again it is called an expansionary period. By this definition, the average recession lasts about a year.

And how is a widely feared depression defined?

Before the Great Depression of the 1930s any downturn in economic activity was referred to as a depression. The term recession was developed in this period to differentiate periods like the 1930s from smaller economic declines that occurred in 1910 and 1913. This leads to the simple definition of a depression as a recession that lasts longer and has a larger decline in business activity.

The Difference

So how can we tell the difference between a recession and a depression? A good rule of thumb for determining the difference between a recession and a depression is to look at the changes in GNP. A depression is any economic downturn where real GDP declines by more than 10 percent. A recession is an economic downturn that is less severe.

By this yardstick, the last depression in the United States was from May 1937 to June 1938, where real GDP declined by 18.2 percent. If we use this method then the Great Depression of the 1930s can be seen as two separate events: an incredibly severe depression lasting from August 1929 to March 1933 where real GDP declined by almost 33 percent, a period of recovery, then another less severe depression of 1937-38. The United States hasn’t had anything even close to a depression in the post-war period. The worst recession in the last 60 years was from November 1973 to March 1975, where real GDP fell by 4.9 percent. Countries such as Finland and Indonesia have suffered depressions in recent memory using this definition.

In reading Sprott’s and Franklin’s review, they focus on the negative assessments of the following economic data: (more…)

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