Technical Recession Confirmed
The U.S. economy shrank for a second quarter in a row this year, a third and final estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis confirmed Thursday—once again signaling the start of a technical recession even as economists predict signs of a slowdown will only grow in the coming quarters, likely prompting the government to officially declare the economy has entered a recession.
“It doesn’t make sense that the economy would be in recession,” Fed Chair Powell said on Wednesday, even as other experts say it’s likely only a matter of time until the government officially recognizes it.
The U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.6% in the second quarter—marking the second consecutive quarter of negative gross domestic product growth and thereby signaling the economy has entered a technical recession, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported in a final estimate released Thursday.
The figure was flat from an estimate last month but ticked up from the 0.9% decline estimated in July.
The government blamed the worse-than-expected figure on declines in residential investments (or home buying), federal government spending and business inventories, but said an uptick in exports and spending helped economic activity improve from last quarter’s decline of 1.6%.
According to one working definition, a recession comprises two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, says Wells Fargo senior economist Tim Quinlan—but it’s not the official one: Instead, the definitive call is up to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity” lasting “more than a few months.”
Quinlan points out four of the six factors the NBER relies on to declare a recession—production, income, employment and spending—continued to signal expansion through May, but he notes production appears to be “losing steam” and income gains are struggling to keep up with inflation, all while unemployment claims rise and consumers start spending less .
Like other economists, Quinlan isn’t convinced economic indicators last quarter were indicative of a current recession, but he warns the economy is slowing and “it is starting to feel like [entering one] is only a matter of time.”
“We do not think the economy is in recession at present, but if our forecast is correct, this is not so much of a head fake as it is a harbinger of worse to come,” says Quinlan, who argues the negative GDP growth in the first half of the year isn’t likely a function of weak underlying demand but instead due to “one-off” volatile factors such as net exports and inventories. “We expect the loud wailing of an actual recession to begin early next year,” he adds.
Though economist projections continued to call for a return to growth in the second quarter, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow model in July began signaling the start of a technical recession, pushing its GDP forecast into negative territory after economic data showed consumer spending dropped in May. “The model’s long-run track record is excellent,” say DataTrek analysts Nicholas Colas and Jessica Rabe, pointing out its average error has been just 0.3 points since the Atlanta Fed started running it in 2011. Ahead of the GDP print, the model projected the economy shrank 1.2% last quarter. It now projects the economy will grow 1.4% in the third quarter.
What To Watch For
The government releases its first estimate of third-quarter GDP growth on October 27. GDPNow forecasts growth of just 0.3% in the third quarter—down from initial estimates last month of more than 2%.
The Fed’s withdrawal of pandemic stimulus measures and interest rate hikes this year have fueled concerns of impending recession. This summer, Bank of America economists warned clients that prolonged inflation and the resulting interest rate hikes have unleashed a “worrying deterioration” in the economy, and particularly in the once-booming housing market. “The Fed has become more committed to using its tools to help restore price stability, with a willingness to accept at least some pain in the process,” they said, predicting the economy will fall into recession over the next year.
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