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U.S. Recession Began in February: NBER

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The National Bureau of Economic Research, the date-keeper for U.S. business cycles, has declared February 2020 as the official end of the U.S. economic expansion and beginning of the current recession.

“The expansion lasted 128 months, the longest in the history of U.S. business cycles dating back to 1854,” according to the NBER. The previous record was 120 months, running from March 1991 to March 2001.

The NBER noted that February 2020 marked the peak for payrolls and the low in the national unemployment rate as well as the peak in monthly real personal spending, “the most comprehensive monthly measure of aggregate expenditures,” and in aggregate real income. The latter two contribute to quarterly GDP reports.

At the same time the NBER acknowledged problems with the jobs data occurring during the early months of  COVID-19 pandemic. The payroll data, based on a large survey of employers, for example, overcounted workers “due to special circumstances associated with the pandemic of early 2020.” Individuals on paid furlough were counted as employed even though they weren’t working, according to the NBER.

“The committee concluded that both employment series were … consistent with a business cycle peak in February” even though the payroll data and household survey measure employment only through the twelfth of the month. As a result, the March jobs report, which the NBER considered in trying to identify when employment peaked, understated “the collapse of employment during the second half” of the month, “as indicated by unprecedented levels of new claims for unemployment insurance.” 

The NBER noted that the “pandemic and the public health response” have led to a  “downturn with different characteristics and dynamics than prior recessions. Nonetheless, it concluded that the unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the entire economy, warrants the designation of this episode as a recession, even if it turns out to be briefer than earlier contractions.”

— Check out What Is Going On With the Unemployment Numbers? on ThinkAdvisor.