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.