James Ross, the University Architect at UNC Wilmington and an avid student of the economy, called my attention to Martin Wolfe's recent essay at the Financial Times explaining that we're not at risk of a double-dip recession because the one that began in late 2007 hasn't ended.
Of course, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) declared June 2009 as the end date for the last recession, a decision they announced in September of the following year. You can read their rationale here. According to the NBER's analytical method, which focuses on major peaks and troughs as boundaries, the June 2009 end for the last recession makes perfect sense. But if you expect the end of a recession to be a return to some semblance of economic normality, then, to paraphrase the immortal words of Yogi Berra, the last recession "ain't over 'til it's over."
Bill McBride, the economic wizard at Calculated Risk, is a master at graphing data series to illustrate troughs and recoveries to new highs. See his August 30th update on recession measures for some excellent examples.
With a hat tip to Bill, here are some charts of troughs to peaks that show why so many people believe the U.S. is still mired in a recession. For those of us who do accept the NBER recession call, the charts support the characterization of our current economic condition as, in the words of economist Kenneth Rogoff, The Second Great Contraction — its predecessor being the Great Depression.
The first chart is a look at Real GDP since 1950 with recessions highlighted. As we can see, at present, more than two years after the end of the last recession, real GDP is still 0.5% off the all-time high set in the last quarter of 2007. The recession officially began in December of that year.
My preferred GDP metric is the per-capita variant. I take real GDP and divide it by the mid-month population estimates from the Census Bureau, which has reported this data from 1959 (hence my 1960 starting date). By this measure, Q2 2011 GDP is 3.4% off its peak.
For most people, GDP is an economic abstraction that has little meaning. Employment levels, on the other hand, are a more compelling measure of the economy. Here, then, is a chart of total nonfarm employment, which peaked in January 2008, a month into the last recession. As of last month, nonfarm employment was a painful 4.9% off the peak.
Let's close with an overlay of these three metrics.
The recession of 2007-2009 was by far the most savage economic decline over the time frame of these charts. Prior to the last recession, real GDP hit a new peak within a quarter or two of the official recession end. Per capita real GDP usually lagged a quarter before hitting its post-recession peak; the one exception was in 1990-1991, when the per capita variant required an extra three quarters to set a new peak. Employment has historically been slower to hit new highs following recessions.
The so-called double-dip recession of 1980-1982 had a non-recessionary interlude of four quarters. All three of our indicators hit new peaks within in the second quarter after the first of the double dips. Where are we today? We're now in the ninth quarter after the last recession. Real GDP is within shouting distance (0.5%) of a new peak. But real GDP per capita is less than halfway from its trough to a new peak, and, twenty-six months after the recession ended, nonfarm employment is only a bit over 20% of the way from its trough to a new peak.
Since the beginning of quarterly GDP data, which has been tracked since 1947, the U.S. has never had an official recession without having achieved new highs in Real GDP and nonfarm employment. Let's hope that record continues. But ultimately the debate over recession boundaries is a minor quibble in the ongoing economic reality of The Second Great Contraction.