Let’s stop talking about a ‘double-dip’ recession
Barely a day goes by without some expert publicly worrying whether or not the U.S. economy will fall into a “double-dip” recession. In a CNBC interview last September, investor George Soros said he thought the U.S. was already in one. Earlier this month, the former chief global strategist for Morgan Stanley cited an academic study to argue that “after every financial crisis there’s a long period of much slower growth and in almost every case you get a double dip.” Granted, this is a minority view; most economists are predicting sustained modest growth for the near future. Which makes sense, because while few are thrilled with the pace of comeback, the U.S. economy has grown for 11 consecutive quarters, beginning in mid-2009.
But given that the recovery is approaching its third birthday, how far away from the Great Recession do we need to get before another downturn would be considered not a “second dip” but simply a separate recession instead?
For all its ubiquity, there is no uniform definition of what a “double-dip” recession is; even the origins of the term are hazy. One analyst wrote in a 2010 research note that the term dates from about 1994, when there was concern about sliding back into the 1991 recession. But Safire’s Political Dictionary traces the term to a 1975 BusinessWeek article, attributing it to an unidentified economist in the Ford administration. (Tellingly, the “double dip” the government feared back then did not actually materialize.)
Much of what is meant by “double-dip” recession is intuitively clear: It’s what happens when a recovery is so feeble that, soon enough, an economy sinks back into contraction. It’s the “soon enough” part that no one can agree on. Investopedia defines double dip as “when gross domestic product growth slides back to negative after a quarter or two of positive growth.” If that were the case, fear of a double dip would long ago have subsided.
Of course, an imprecise term need not be useless. There can be good conceptual and historical reasons for associating an economic downturn with one that preceded it. Many Americans naturally think of the Great Depression as a single, sustained economic horror that began with the stock crash of 1929 and didn’t end until the U.S. entered World War Two at the end of 1941. Technically, that’s not true; the U.S. economy actually began growing in 1933 and continued to grow until 1937, when a second dip hit. But the economy had shrunk so severely in the first dip that it never got back to its pre-’29 level by the time it began contracting again – which redeems the popular fusion of two recessions separated by a weak recovery into one Great Depression. Some economists have claimed, more contentiously, that nearly back-to-back recessions in 1980 and 1981-82 qualified as first and second dips.
But that’s not what’s happened this time around. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the American economy bottomed out in the Great Recession in the second quarter of 2009, when GDP sank to $13.85 trillion, a shrinkage of about 3.9 percent from the then-all-time high a year before of $14.42 trillion. Since then, we’ve far surpassed that previous high-water mark, with current GDP at $15.32 trillion. One way to think about this: The distance between where we are now and the previous high of 2008 is greater than the distance between that 2008 peak and the 2009 trough. Even using what BEA calls “chained 2005 dollars” (in other words, accounting for inflation), current GDP is higher now than it has ever been.
Why, then, do we keep hearing about a double dip, instead of a new recession? Part of the reason seems to be psychological, a sense that weaknesses that were manifest in the Great Recession – slow job growth, too much reliance on Federal Reserve activity – have not been fully addressed. As Alan Levenson, chief economist for T. Rowe Price, told me: “A turnaround always looks like a struggle. Each time we live through a slowdown, we feel like the economy can never grow again.”
The fear of a double dip is also a potent political weapon. On the right, commentators and politicians seek to stoke fear about a renewed economic downturn as a way of “proving” that Barack Obama’s economic policies have failed; the argument is: “No, he didn’t create the economic crisis, but he made it worse.” On the left, it’s useful to remind Americans of the past economic crisis as a way of repudiating Republican economic policy; the argument is: “We’d better not go down that road again.” In both cases, appealing to fear hits harder because our economic pain still seems so close – not some as-yet-unknown future downturn.
Ironically, as Levenson points out, if the U.S. economy does slow down – which he’s not predicting for 2012 – it will probably have little or nothing to do with fiscal or monetary policy. Rather, it will more likely come from some external shock, such as skyrocketing oil prices or a renewed European meltdown. That probably won’t prevent people from calling it a double dip, but it really is time to put the Great Recession behind us and see any future recession for what it truly is.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama eats an ice cream at DeWitt Dairy Treats in DeWitt, Iowa, August 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed