Comparing post WWII recessions

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We do requests:

“I’m leaving on vacation or I would do it, but can someone do an overlay chart of the post-WWII recessions and the subsequent recovery? I suspect we’ll see a pattern. Recessions tend to end after a certain number of months, depending on the depth of the recession, whether Congress spends money or not.” – FH

Frank is leaving and I am just getting back from vacation, so I’ll take the baton. The following screenshots are from a nifty tool on the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank website. The red line is the current recession.

Post-WWII Recessions Tracked by Changes in US Output:

Post-WWII Recessions Tracked by Changes in Employment:

This is not the first time we’ve made these comparisons. A year ago, on the eve of a partisan passage of the trillion dollar stimulus package stampeded through Congress, we were also comparing recessions. Up to that point, this recession looked to be similar in depth and duration to the ’81 recession. Since then, coincident with the passage of the “stimulus” bill, this recession got worse. Is there a connection between the passage of the stimulus bill and the recession getting worse? Unlikely. Is there a connection between the passage of the stimulus bill and recession getting better now? Unlikely. You can read the charts and draw your own conclusions, but I’ll offer a few observations of my own…

First and foremost is the exact same point I made a year ago, which echos Frank’s sentiment:

“The graphic points out an interesting aspect of recessions. They all end. And, surprisingly, they didn’t all need a trillion dollar stimulus bill from the Feds to end them. In fact, all of them combined up to now did not need a trillion dollar stimulus to end.”

This is worth repeating. If you pass a stimulus bill, recessions end. If you don’t pass a stimulus bill, recessions end. If you pass a small stimulus bill, recessions end. If you pass a large stimulus bill, recessions end. Recessions end. Full stop.

In terms of US Output, the graphs show the 2007 recession to be comparable to the ’53, ’57, and ’81 recessions (slightly worse than ’81, not as bad than ’57). In terms of employment, this is the worst recession since WWII. By any measure, this recession is lasting longer than any recession since WWII.

In terms of output, the recovery is underway. In terms of employment, it is not. Justin asserts that “…credit needs to be given to [the administration] for helping turn our economy around in such a dramatic fashion.” I am not sure what is so dramatic about the longest recession and slowest recovery of any recession since WWII, nor am I sure why any administration would want credit for it. Still, Justin is the voice of moderation compared to the hero worshiping fantasy found in the comments.

Given that this is the slowest recovery from the deepest recession in the modern era, any argument on what impact the stimulus package or the Obama administration did or did not have on the duration or strength of the recovery can only be made on a counterfactual basis – “expressing what has not happened but could, would, or might under differing conditions”. Despite the massive expenditures, you cannot say this recovery is more robust than any that has gone before. The only case that can be made in defense of administration policy is speculation that the recovery would have been even more tepid without the stimulus.

Problem being, a case can also be made that the uncertainty created by this administration’s wild spending, insane deficits, threatened increases in health care taxes, likely increases in health care insurance premiums on employers, an energy tax (cap & trade), repeal of the Bush tax cuts, increases in the minimum wage, uncertainty created in the health care, financial, and energy industries with the imposition of radical government mandated top down changes in industrial policy – all contributed to increasing uncertainty in the private sector and made the recession worse.

Both are counterfactual scenarios. Neither can ever be proven with certainty.

There are statements about administration policy on the economy that can be made with certainty. Clearly, administration policy has cushioned the pain of the recession for many who were hit hardest. Realistically and practically, this is a legitimate and necessary function of the federal government. Another certainty is that only about one third of the stimulus package allocation has been spent, and a significant percentage of that was in the form of pork for congressional districts that was not focused on creating new jobs (but may have arguably saved government jobs at the expense of the private sector). Unsurprising, since the bill was written by Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representatives, slightly trimmed by the Senate, and rubber stamped by the President. Based on the percentage of the bill spent to date, it is unarguable that a focused bill 20-30% the size of the one that passed would have had the exact same effect of “turning the economy around in such a dramatic fashion” to this point – without further inflaming the deficit and currency fears the stimulus package produced.

So should we applaud the administration for the economic performance of a bloated, politics-as-usual, pork-filled stimulus package that passed a year ago on a strong-armed partisan vote? It did provide one valuable service. In a single stroke it disabused independents of any illusion that the Obama administration would be vaguely centrist, post-partisan, fiscally responsible, more transparent, or agents of change in Washington D.C. We were immediately back to old-style back-room dealing, partisan politics and favoritism pushed by a classic borrow, tax and spend liberal. It set the tone and became the template for everything that the administration has done since. Credit for turning the economy around? I remain unconvinced.