“I think way back in March of 2020 there was a question of: ‘Should we call this a recession?’” said Tara Sinclair, an economist at George Washington University who studies business cycles. “Or if this is something that is going to last a few weeks, then the economy bounces right back, should it be treated as a recession or as the equivalent of a natural disaster?”
Waiting to call an endpoint made sense, she said, as the committee was watching for evidence of a second wave of virus outbreak that might cause the economy to tumble again. In fact, a wave of infections in the fall dragged down employment numbers for a single month, but by most evidence it did not cause a broad or sustained contraction in economic activity.
But “at this point, they are taking a particularly long time to call a particularly clear trough,” Professor Sinclair said.
There’s one more wrinkle that shows how the pandemic recession is a weird one. Another common definition of recession, used especially widely outside the United States, is two straight quarters of contraction in G.D.P.
Even though the actual economic contraction lasted only a few weeks in early 2020, it appears in the G.D.P. tables as having stretched over two quarters. The economy was shutting down in mid-March severely enough to cause the economy to shrink at a 5 percent annual rate in the first quarter that ended March 31.
Then the continued collapse of the economy into early April meant that the second quarter, which began April 1, recorded a further 31 percent rate of shrinkage. If the pandemic had started at the beginning of a quarter rather than the end, the data would most likely have shown only a single quarter of declining G.D.P.
The exact start date and end date aren’t of great importance, of course, unless you’re a chart maker focused on where the gray bars should go in an economic data visualization, or a politician looking for talking points on the campaign trail. What matters for people is how long and how severe the bad times turn out to be.