Recession Redefinition

Amidst all the Niger Uranium furor I almost missed some interesting economic news. Fortunately, commenter Stirling Newberry alerted me to a story in the Friday Washington Post: Number Crunchers vs. Recession. Said number crunchers are members of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) which, among many other things, is the most widely used source for dating the start and end of recessions. You’ve probably heard that the latest recession started in March of 2001 (notwithstanding Bush’s simultaneous attempts to say that 9/11 caused the recession and that it started under Clinton–on this topic, this Slate story is a must-read). But when, if ever, did the recession end? Well, there are two conceivable ways to get to the end zone in football. Normally a team scores by moving the ball past the goal line. On the other hand, they could keep the ball stationary and simply move the goal line. It looks like the NBER is doing the latter:

“If the committee were to rely on the same indicator to date the end of the slump, the recession would already have lasted for two years and three months, making it the longest since the vastly more serious downturn that began in 1929 and became the Great Depression…

Chances are, by giving far more weight to the GDP than it has in the past, the committee will decide before long to call an end to the 2001 recession, which many economists believe ended late that year…

This is the dating committee’s [new] official definition of a recession:

A recession is a significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough

…But that language was sharply revised when the next update was posted last month on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Web site:

The committee views real GDP as the single best measure of aggregate economic activity. In determining whether a recession has occurred and in identifying the approximate dates of the peak and the trough, the committee therefore places considerable weight on the estimate of real GDP issued by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce.”

My first thought upon reading this was “Hey, the NBER has the top economists in the country and is largely apolitical, so there’s not much of a story here.” My second thought was “On the other hand, the current President of the NBER is Marty Feldstein, who was Chairman of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1982-1984. It sure would be nice for Republicans if the Recession is formally announced to be over before November, 2004.”

So I checked into who is on the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee:

Robert Hall (Chair), Martin Feldstein (President, NBER), Jeffrey Frankel, Robert Gordon, Christina Romer, David Romer, and Victor Zarnowitz.

All members are top-notch economists, but I don’t know most of their political affiliations. Fortunately, many economists on both the Left and Right recently decided to reveal their political leanings by signing one of two letters (I blogged about the letters here). Besides Feldstein, no members of the NBER dating committee signed the Republican Letter (scroll down). Frankel, Gordon, and both Romers signed the Anti-Tax Cut Letter. So I think it’s pretty tough to argue that the committee was stacked with Republican economists. Also, Prof. Frankel chaired Clinton’s CEA in the late 1990s.

Instead, the change most likely reflects genuine confusion induced by the historically unusual confluence of positive GDP and income growth accompanied by rising unemployment.

Still, while probably not politically motivated the focus on real GDP as the single best measure of aggregate economic activity” is troubling because it implies a focus only on the total income in the economy, not the distribution of that income. Under this logic a recession would not be in progress even at 20% unemployment, as long as the other 80% of the labor force had more-than-offsetting increases in income. But at least one in five people in this scenario would disagree with this conclusion.


P.S. In the 1970s, economists thought recessions and inflation would not happen at the same time, so they had to come up with a new name for the new phenomenon: “stagflation”. The only phrase I’ve heard for the current situation is “jobless recovery”, but while acccurate, it’s not very catchy. Ideas?