12.2 The Business Cycle

The Great Depression was by far the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. But although the economy managed to avoid catastrophe for the rest of the twentieth century, it has experienced many ups and downs.

It’s true that the ups have consistently been bigger than the downs: a chart of any of the major numbers used to track the U.S. economy shows a strong upward trend over time. For example, Figure 12-2 shows total U.S. private-sector employment (the total number of jobs offered by private businesses) measured along the left vertical axis, with the data from 1985 to 2014 given by the purple line. The graph also shows the index of industrial production (a measure of the total output of U.S. factories) measured along the right vertical axis, with the data from 1985 to 2014 given by the red line. Both private-sector employment and industrial production were much higher at the end of this period than at the beginning, and in most years both measures rose.

Figure 12.2: FIGURE 12-2 Private-Sector Employment and Industrial Production, 1985–2014
Figure 12.2: This figure shows two important economic numbers, the industrial production index and total private-sector employment. Both numbers grew substantially from 1985 to 2014, but they didn’t grow steadily. Instead, both suffered from three downturns associated with recessions, which are indicated by the shaded areas in the figure.
Data from: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.


But they didn’t rise steadily. As you can see from the figure, there were three periods—in the early 1990s, in the early 2000s, and again beginning in late 2007—when both employment and industrial output stumbled.

The economy’s forward march, in other words, isn’t smooth. And the uneven pace of the economy’s progress, its ups and downs, is one of the main preoccupations of macroeconomics.

Charting the Business Cycle

Figure 12-3 shows a stylized representation of the way the economy evolves over time. The vertical axis shows either employment or an indicator of how much the economy is producing, such as industrial production or real gross domestic product (real GDP), a measure of the economy’s overall output that we’ll learn about in the next chapter. As the data in Figure 12-2 suggest, these two measures tend to move together. Their common movement is the starting point for a major theme of macroeconomics: the economy’s alternation between short-run downturns and upturns.

Figure 12.3: FIGURE 12-3 The Business Cycle
Figure 12.3: This is a stylized picture of the business cycle. The vertical axis measures either employment or total output in the economy. Periods when these two variables turn down are recessions; periods when they turn up are expansions. The point at which the economy turns down is a business-cycle peak; the point at which it turns up again is a business-cycle trough.

Recessions, or contractions, are periods of economic downturn when output and employment are falling.

Expansions, or recoveries, are periods of economic upturn when output and employment are rising.

A broad-based downturn, in which output and employment fall in many industries, is called a recession (sometimes referred to as a contraction). Recessions, as officially declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER (discussed in the upcoming For Inquiring Minds), are indicated by the shaded areas in Figure 12-2. When the economy isn’t in a recession, when most economic numbers are following their normal upward trend, the economy is said to be in an expansion (sometimes referred to as a recovery).

The business cycle is the short-run alternation between recessions and expansions.

The point at which the economy turns from expansion to recession is a business-cycle peak.

The point at which the economy turns from recession to expansion is a business-cycle trough.

The alternation between recessions and expansions is known as the business cycle. The point in time at which the economy shifts from expansion to recession is known as a business-cycle peak; the point at which the economy shifts from recession to expansion is known as a business-cycle trough.

The business cycle is an enduring feature of the economy. Table 12-2 shows the official list of business-cycle peaks and troughs. As you can see, there have been recessions and expansions for at least the past 155 years. Whenever there is a prolonged expansion, as there was in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, books and articles come out proclaiming the end of the business cycle. Such proclamations have always proved wrong: the cycle always comes back.

Table : TABLE 12-2 The History of the Business Cycle
Business-Cycle Peak Business-Cycle Trough
no prior data available December 1854
June 1857 December 1858
October 1860 June 1861
April 1865 December 1867
June 1869 December 1870
October 1873 March 1879
March 1882 May 1885
March 1887 April 1888
July 1890 May 1891
January 1893 June 1894
December 1895 June 1897
June 1899 December 1900
September 1902 August 1904
May 1907 June 1908
January 1910 January 1912
January 1913 December 1914
August 1918 March 1919
January 1920 July 1921
May 1923 July 1924
October 1926 November 1927
August 1929 March 1933
May 1937 June 1938
February 1945 October 1945
November 1948 October 1949
July 1953 May 1954
August 1957 April 1958
April 1960 February 1961
December 1969 November 1970
November 1973 March 1975
January 1980 July 1980
July 1981 November 1982
July 1990 March 1991
March 2001 November 2001
December 2007 June 2009

Data from: National Bureau of Economic Research.


FOR INQUIRING MINDSDefining Recessions and Expansions

You may be wondering how recessions and expansions are defined. The truth is that there are no exact definitions!

In many countries, economists adopt the rule that a recession is a period of at least two consecutive quarters (a quarter is three months) during which the total output of the economy shrinks. The two-consecutive-quarters requirement is designed to avoid classifying brief hiccups in the economy’s performance, with no lasting significance, as recessions.

Sometimes, however, this seems too strict. For example, three months of sharply declining output, then three months of slightly positive growth, then another three months of rapid decline, should surely be considered to have endured a nine-month recession.

In the United States, we assign the task of determining when a recession begins and ends to an independent panel of experts at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). This panel looks at a variety of economic indicators, with the main focus on employment and production. But, ultimately, the panel makes a judgment call.

Sometimes this judgment is controversial. In fact, there is lingering controversy over the 2001 recession. According to the NBER, that recession began in March 2001 and ended in November 2001 when output began rising. Some critics argue, however, that the recession really began several months earlier, when industrial production began falling. Other critics argue that the recession didn’t really end in 2001 because employment continued to fall and the job market remained weak for another year and a half. image

The Pain of Recession

Not many people complain about the business cycle when the economy is expanding. Recessions, however, create a great deal of pain.

The most important effect of a recession is its effect on the ability of workers to find and hold jobs. The most widely used indicator of conditions in the labor market is the unemployment rate. We’ll explain how that rate is calculated in Chapter 14, but for now it’s enough to say that a high unemployment rate tells us that jobs are scarce and a low unemployment rate tells us that jobs are easy to find.

Figure 12-4 shows the unemployment rate from 1988 to 2016. As you can see, the U.S. unemployment rate surged during and after each recession but eventually fell during periods of expansion. The rising unemployment rate in 2008 was a sign that a new recession might be under way, which was later confirmed by the NBER to have begun in December 2007.


Figure 12.4: FIGURE 12-4 The U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1988–2016
Figure 12.4: The unemployment rate, a measure of joblessness, rises sharply during recessions and usually falls during expansions.
Data from: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Because recessions cause many people to lose their jobs and make it hard to find new ones, they hurt the standard of living of many families. Recessions are usually associated with a rise in the number of people living below the poverty line, an increase in the number of people who lose their houses because they can’t afford the mortgage payments, and a fall in the percentage of Americans with health insurance coverage.

You should not think, however, that workers are the only group that suffers during a recession. Recessions are also bad for firms: like employment and wages, profits suffer during recessions, with many small businesses failing.

All in all, then, recessions are bad for almost everyone. Can anything be done to reduce their frequency and severity?

Taming the Business Cycle

Modern macroeconomics largely came into being as a response to the worst recession in history—the 43-month downturn that began in 1929 and continued into 1933, ushering in the Great Depression. The havoc wreaked by the 1929–1933 recession spurred economists to search both for understanding and for solutions: they wanted to know how such things could happen and how to prevent them.

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As explained earlier, the work of John Maynard Keynes suggested that monetary and fiscal policies could be used to mitigate the effects of recessions, and to this day governments turn to Keynesian policies when recession strikes. Later work, notably that of another great macroeconomist, Milton Friedman, led to a consensus that it’s important to rein in booms as well as to fight slumps. So modern policy makers try to “smooth out” the business cycle. They haven’t been completely successful, as a look back at Figure 12-2 makes clear. It’s widely believed, however, that policy guided by macroeconomic analysis has helped make the economy more stable.

Although the business cycle is one of the main concerns of macroeconomics and historically played a crucial role in fostering the development of the field, macroeconomists are also concerned with other issues we examine next.


Comparing Recessions

The alternation of recessions and expansions seems to be an enduring feature of economic life. However, not all business cycles are created equal. In particular, some recessions have been much worse than others.

Figure 12.5: FIGURE 12-5 Two U.S. Recessions
Data from: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Let’s compare the two most recent U.S. recessions: the 2001 recession and the Great Recession of 2007–2009. These recessions differed in duration: the first lasted only eight months, the second more than twice as long. Even more important, however, they differed greatly in depth.

In Figure 12-5 we compare the depth of the recessions by looking at what happened to industrial production over the months after the recession began. In each case, production is measured as a percentage of its level at the recession’s start. Thus the line for the 2007–2009 recession shows that industrial production eventually fell to about 85% of its initial level.


Clearly, the 2007–2009 recession hit the economy vastly harder than the 2001 recession. Indeed, by comparison to many recessions, the 2001 slump was very mild.

Of course, this was no consolation to the millions of American workers who lost their jobs, even in that mild recession.

Quick Review

  • The business cycle, the short-run alternation between recessions and expansions, is a major concern of modern macroeconomics.

  • The point at which expansion shifts to recession is a business-cycle peak. The point at which recession shifts to expansion is a business-cycle trough.

Check Your Understanding 12-2

Question 12.3

1. Why do we talk about business cycles for the economy as a whole, rather than just talking about the ups and downs of particular industries?

We talk about business cycles for the economy as a whole because recessions and expansions are not confined to a few industries—they reflect downturns and upturns for the economy as a whole. In downturns, almost every sector of the economy reduces output and the number of people employed. Moreover, business cycles are an international phenomenon, sometimes moving in rough synchrony across countries.

Question 12.4

2. Describe who gets hurt in a recession, and how.

Recessions cause a great deal of pain across the entire society. They cause large numbers of workers to lose their jobs and make it hard to find new jobs. Recessions hurt the standard of living of many families and are usually associated with a rise in the number of people living below the poverty line, an increase in the number of people who lose their houses because they can’t afford their mortgage payments, and a fall in the percentage of Americans with health insurance. Recessions also hurt the profits of firms.

Solutions appear at back of book.