Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Great Recession Continues

For most people, GDP is an economic abstraction that has little meaning. Employment levels, on the other hand, are a more compelling measure of the economy. Here, then, is a chart of total nonfarm employment, which peaked in January 2008, a month into the last recession. As of last month, nonfarm employment was a painful 4.9% off the peak.

My preferred GDP metric is the per-capita variant. I take real GDP and divide it by the mid-month population estimates from the Census Bureau, which has reported this data from 1959 (hence my 1960 starting date). By this measure, Q2 2011 GDP is 3.4% off its peak.

This chart is a look at Real GDP since 1950 with recessions highlighted. As we can see, at present, more than two years after the end of the last recession, real GDP is still 0.5% off the all-time high set in the last quarter of 2007. The recession officially began in December of that year.

According to the NBER's analytical method, which focuses on major peaks and troughs as boundaries, the June 2009 end for the last recession makes perfect sense. But if you expect the end of a recession to be a return to some semblance of economic normality, then, to paraphrase the immortal words of Yogi Berra, the last recession "ain't over 'til it's over." ...

The recession of 2007-2009 was by far the most savage economic decline over the time frame of these charts. Prior to the last recession, real GDP hit a new peak within a quarter or two of the official recession end. Per capita real GDP usually lagged a quarter before hitting its post-recession peak; the one exception was in 1990-1991, when the per capita variant required an extra three quarters to set a new peak. Employment has historically been slower to hit new highs following recessions.

The so-called double-dip recession of 1980-1982 had a non-recessionary interlude of four quarters. All three of our indicators hit new peaks within in the second quarter after the first of the double dips. Where are we today? We're now in the ninth quarter after the last recession. Real GDP is within shouting distance (0.5%) of a new peak. But real GDP per capita is less than halfway from its trough to a new peak, and, twenty-six months after the recession ended, nonfarm employment is only a bit over 20% of the way from its trough to a new peak.

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