What is a Recession, Who Decides When It Starts, and When Do They Decide?

Source: Brian W. Cashell, Congressional Research Service, Order Code RS22793, January 23, 2008

A recession is one of several discrete phases in the overall business cycle. The term may often be used loosely to describe an economy that is slowing down or characterized by weakness in at least one major sector like the housing market. When used by economists, “recession” means a significant decline in overall economic activity that lasts more than a few months. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) business cycle dating committee is the generally recognized arbiter of the dates of the beginnings and ends of recessions. As with all statistics, it takes some time to compile the data, which means they are only available after the events they describe. Moreover, because it takes time to discern changes in trends given the usual month-to-month volatility in economic indicators, and because the data are subject to revision, it takes some time before the dating committee can agree that a recession began at a certain date. It can be a year or more after the fact that the dating committee announces the date of the beginning of a recession.

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