Recession and Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2012

Economics 101

A Depression is an Exceptionally Bad Recession 

When campaigning for the presidency Ronald Reagan explained what a recession, a depression and a recovery were.  He said a recession is when your neighbor loses his job.  A depression is when you lose your job.  And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.  This was during the 1980 presidential election.  Where Reagan included that famous question at the end of one of the debates.  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  And the answer was “no.”  Ronald Reagan surged ahead of Jimmy Carter after that and won by a landslide.  And he won reelection by an even bigger landslide in 1984.

There are a couple of ways to define a recession.  Falling output and rising unemployment.  Two consecutive quarters of falling Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  A decline in new factory orders.  The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, officially marks the start and end dates of all U.S. recessions.  They consider a lot of economic data.   It’s not an exact science.  But they track the business cycle.  That normal economic cycle between economic expansion and economic contraction.  The business cycle has peaks (expansion) and troughs (contraction).  A recession is the time period between a peak and a trough.  From the time everyone is working and happy and buying a lot of stuff.  Through a period of layoffs where people stop buying much of anything.  Until the last layoff before the next economic expansion begins.

A depression has an even more vague science behind it.  We really don’t have a set of requirements that the economy has to meet to tell us we’re in a depression.  Since the Great Depression we haven’t really used the word anymore for a depression is just thought of as an exceptionally bad recession.  Some have called the current recession (kicked off by the subprime mortgage crisis) a depression.  Because it has a lot of the things the Great Depression had.  Bank failures.  Liquidity crises.  A long period of high unemployment.  In fact, current U.S unemployment is close to Great Depression unemployment if you measure more apples to apples and use the U-6 rate instead of the official U-3 rate that subtracts a lot of people from the equation (people who can’t find work and have given up looking, people working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, people underemployed working well below their skill level, etc.).  For these reasons many call the current recession the Great Recession.  To connect it to the Great Depression.  Without calling the current recession a depression.

Whether Inventories sell or not Businesses have to Pay their People and their Payroll Taxes

So what causes a recession?  Good economic times.  Funny, isn’t it?  It’s the good times that cause the bad times.  Here’s how.  When everyone has a job who wants a job a lot of people are spending money in the economy.  Creating a lot of economic activity.  Businesses respond to this.  They increase production.  Even boost the inventories they carry so they don’t miss out on these good times.  For the last thing a business wants is to run out of their hot selling merchandise when people are buying like there is no tomorrow.  Businesses will ramp up production.  Add overtime such as running production an extra day of the week.  Perhaps extend the working day.  Businesses will do everything to max out their production with their current labor force.  Because expanding that labor force will cause big problems when the bloom is off of the economic rose.

But if the economic good times look like they will last businesses will hire new workers.  Driving up labor costs as businesses have to pay more to hire workers in a tight labor market.  These new workers will work a second shift.  A third shift.  They will fill a manufacturing plant expansion.  Or fill a new plant.  (Built by a booming construction industry.  Just as construction workers are building new houses in a booming home industry.)  Businesses will make these costly investments to meet the booming demand during an economic expansion.  Increasing their costs.  Which increases their prices.  And as businesses do this throughout the economy they begin to produce even more than the people are buying.  Inventories begin to build up until inventories are growing faster than sales.  The business cycle has peaked.  And the economic decline begins.

Inventories are costly.  They produce no revenue.  But incur cost to warehouse them.  Worse, businesses spent a lot of money producing these inventories.  Or I should say credit.  Typically manufacturers buy things and pay for them later.  Their accounts payable.  Which are someone else’s accounts receivable.  A lot of bills coming due.  And a lot of invoices going past due.  Because businesses have their money tied up in those inventories.  But one thing they can’t owe money on is payroll.  Whether those inventories sell or not they have to pay their people on time or face some harsh legal penalties.  And they have to pay their payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, withholding taxes, etc.) for the same reasons.  As well as their Workers’ Compensation insurance.  And they have to pay their health care insurance.  Labor is costly.  And there is no flexibility in paying it while you’re waiting for that inventory to sell.  This is why businesses are reluctant to add new labor and only do so when there is no other way to keep up with demand.

The Fed tries to Remove the Recessionary Side of the Business Cycle with Small but ‘Manageable’ Inflation

As sales dry up businesses reduce their prices to unload that inventory.  To convert that inventory into cash so they can pay their bills.  At the same time they are cutting back on production.  With sales down they are only losing money by building up inventories of stuff no one is buying.  Which means layoffs.  They idle their third shifts.  Their second shifts.  Their overtime.  They shut down plants.  A lot of people lose jobs.  Sales fall.  And prices fall.  As businesses try to reduce their inventories.  And stay in business by enticing the fewer people in the market place to buy their reduced production at lower prices.

During the economic expansion costs increased.  Labor costs increased.  And prices increased.  Because demand was greater than supply.  Businesses incurred these higher costs to meet that demand.  During the contraction these had to fall.  Because supply exceeded demand.  Buyers could and did shop around for the lowest price.  Without fear of anything running out of stock and not being there to buy the next day.  Or the next week.  And when prices stop falling it marks the end of the recession and the beginning of the next expansion.  When supply equals demand once again.  Prices, then, are key to the business cycle.  They rise during boom times.  And fall during contractions.  And when they stop falling the recession is over.  This is so important that I will say it again.  When prices stop falling a recession is over.

Jimmy Carter had such a bad economy because his administration still followed Keynesian economic policies.  Which tried to massage the business cycle by removing the contraction side of it.  By using monetary policy.  The Keynesians believed that whenever the economy starts to go into recession all the government has to do is to print money and spend it.  And the government printed a lot of money in the Seventies.  So much that there was double digit inflation.  But all this new money did was raise prices during a recession.  Which only made the recession worse.  This was the turning point in Keynesian economics.  And the end of highly inflationary policies.  But not the end of inflationary policies.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) still tries to remove the recessionary side of the business cycle.  And they still use monetary policy to do it.  With a smaller but ‘manageable’ amount of inflation.  During the great housing bubble that preceded the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession the Fed kept expanding the money supply to keep interest rates very low.  This kept mortgage rates low.  People borrowed money and bought big houses.  Housing prices soared.  These artificially low interest rates created a huge housing bubble that eventually popped.  And because the prices were so high the recession would be a long one to bring them back down.  Which is why many call the current recession the Great Recession.  Because we haven’t seen a price deflation like this since the Great Depression.

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