Recession is Now Tied for Longest Since the Great Depression

The Commerce Department this morning announced its advance estimate of last quarter’s real GDP. As expected, the estimate shows that GDP fell in the first quarter of 2009 — by a hefty 6.1 per cent at an annual rate. An implication is that the recession has just tied the post-war record for longevity.

The previous record-holders were the recessions of 1973-75 and 1981-82, each of them four quarters in length according to the official NBER chronology. In the current downturn, the NBER’s Business Cycle Data Committee determined that the economy peaked in the 4th quarter of 2007. Although the Committee won’t declare the trough of the recession until well after the fact, and the trough could well be a ways off, a negative 1st quarter of 2009 almost certainly means that the four-quarter benchmark has now been attained. (The Commerce Department often revises its GDP figures substantially between the advance estimate and the final number, and we are due for major backward-looking revisions in July. Indeed that is one reason why the NBER always waits so long to issue its findings. In the past, the size of the average revision has been just over 1 percentage point, whether up or down. It is highly unlikely that future revisions will change this morning’s negative number into a positive one.)

The NBER also keeps a more precise monthly chronology. The postwar record is 16 months, again shared by the 1973-75 and 1981-82 recessions. To match this monthly benchmark, the current downturn would have to have continued into April. Our best single indicator as to whether it did so will be the employment number to be released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics next Friday, May 8. It almost certainly will show that there were further job losses in April. If so, it will further confirm the dismal conclusion: one would have to go back 80 years, to the disaster of 1929-1933, to find a longer recession.

Why the G-20 Summit in London April 2 Mattered

Most international summit meetings are long on photo-opportunities and short on substance.   There was a great danger that last Thursday’s G-20 meeting in London would be merit comparison to the failed World Economic Conference of 1933, which was also held in London.   This one, however, did have genuine substance.   

Nobody reads the communiques, or listens to the press conferences of leaders or finance ministers. But here is the substance:

Top of the list of accomplishments was expansion of IMF resources. The new SDR allocation was perhaps the most noteworthy and unexpected decision: those observers who have proposed such a step in the current international crisis, or in past international crises, have usually been dismissed as pipe-dreamers (John Williamson, Dani Rodrik, George Soros, Joe Stiglitz…). In addition, there seems to have been some forward movement on international regulation of the financial sector, as the Europeans wanted. Although President Obama acquitted himself well overall, the failure to achieve agreement for coordinated additional fiscal stimulus, as the Americans wanted, was probably the greatest shortcoming of the meeting.

I believe the G-20 meeting will be remembered historically, but not primarily for the above reasons. It will be remembered as the occasion on which primary emphasis shifted from the G-7, the global steering group that until now has had a monopoly on real economic decision-making power, to the G-20. Of the various substantive ways in which developing countries could and should have been given more representation in recent years, the shift to the G-20 is the first one to have actually taken place.