In US, the definition of 'recession' is a moving target

Just defining exactly what a recession is and when it begins has sparked furious debate - based as much around politics as on economics. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Now that the US economy has posted two consecutive quarters of negative growth, is it in recession? Opinions are starkly divided, and President Joe Biden is definitely in the "No" camp.

The "R" word is akin to profanity in some Washington circles these days, especially within the Biden administration.

Just defining exactly what a recession is and when it begins has sparked furious debate - based as much around politics as on economics.

"That doesn't sound like a recession to me," the US President said on Thursday (July 28) after the Commerce Department reported that gross domestic product declined at an annual rate of 0.9 per cent in the second quarter, following a bigger 1.6 per cent drop in the first three months of 2022.

While not the official definition, two quarters of negative growth are commonly viewed as a strong sign that a recession is under way - but the veteran Democrat's government has been at pains for a week to explain why the term does not apply.

"How do economists determine whether the economy is in a recession?" the White House said in a blog post last week, apparently trying to get the jump on Thursday's data release.

"While some maintain that two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP constitute a recession, that is neither the official definition nor the way economists evaluate the state of the business cycle," the White House said.

Of course, opposition Republicans quickly picked up on the spin.

"Newsflash for Joe Biden: You can't change reality by arguing over definitions," the Republican National Committee said in a statement on Monday.

'One official arbiter'

So beyond the political spin machine, what really is a recession?

In a note on its website, the International Monetary Fund insists there is "no official definition of recession".

"Most commentators and analysts use, as a practical definition of recession, two consecutive quarters of decline in a country's real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product," the Washington-based global lender said.

For IMF chief economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, "the general assessment as to whether the economy is in a recession overall is a little bit more complex".

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday that the Fed "doesn't make a judgment on that".

But he added: "What a recession really is - it is a broad-based decline across many industries that is sustained for more than a couple of months."

Dr David Wilcox, a senior economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and at Bloomberg Economics, said that considering an economy as entering recession after two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth is simply "wrong".

"I kind of cringe and resist every time I see (that definition)", Mr Wilcox told AFP.

"There is one official arbiter of recession dating in the United States, and that is the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)."

Late to the party?

The NBER, a private, independent and non-partisan entity, was founded in 1920 to refine research on the US economy. Its Business Cycle Dating Committee uses several data points to determine when the economy is in expansion or recession.

"A recession is the period between a peak of economic activity and its subsequent trough, or lowest point," the NBER said on its website.

"The NBER's definition emphasises that a recession involves a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months."

But because the bureau prefers to base its assessment on solid data and publish its opinion several months after the figures are released, it can seem a little late to the party.

Dr Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, an economist at center-left think-tank Third Way, said that the NBER's traditional delay is "not a problem" but rather a methodology that allows the bureau to avoid repeated revisions.

"What is common knowledge among economists is that in that preliminary estimate (each quarter), they have less than 50 per cent of actual statistics," she explained.

Translation: The NBER is perhaps totally justified in taking its time.

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