Why Large Economies Are In a Technical Recession

Almost all large economies in the world, other than China, are in the midst of a technical recession, with their gross domestic product (GDP) having contracted for two or more quarters. On Friday, India became the latest large economy to enter this list. The spread of the covid pandemic and a big fear of a possible second wave, have led to consumers and businesses being very careful in the way they spend their money and saving for a possible rainy day.

What is a technical recession?

When the GDP of any economy contracts for two consecutive quarters, economists refer to the situation as a technical recession. GDP is a measure of economic activity and size of a country. Let’s take the case of the United States. The GDP contracted by 9% between April and June 2020 in comparison with the same period in 2019. It contracted again by 2.9% between July and September 2020. So, as of end September, the American economy was in a technical recession.

If we consider the United Kingdom, the economy has contracted in each of the periods between January to March, April to June and July to September, by 2.1%, 21.5% and 9.6%, respectively. Hence, the country has been in a technical recession since the end of June. The only exception to this has been China, which has grown by 3.2% and 4.9%, respectively, between April and June and July and September.

How is a technical recession different from a recession?

An economic scenario where the economy of a country has been contracting for a long period of time, is referred to as a recession. The trouble is there is no standard definition for how long is long. The National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months”.

Hence, if the current decline in economic activity across countries continues in the months to come, then we can safely say that we are in the midst of a recession. The spread of covid has led to economic activity slowing down. Businesses in order to continue to exist have slashed salaries and/or fired people. Even those who haven’t been fired live with the fear of getting fired. All this has led to a slowdown in people and businesses spending money.

When was the last time the world was in a recession?

Lehman Brothers, the fourth biggest investment bank on Wall Street, went bust in mid-September 2008. Many other financial institutions came under huge financial stress and had to be rescued by the governments and the central banks of the United States and Europe. The trouble spilled from Wall Street to Main Street and a recession hit the Western economies.

The central banks in the Western world printed a huge amount of money to drive down interest rates, in the hope that people will borrow and spend, and businesses will borrow and expand. A lot of this money found its way into stock markets all across the world. The interesting thing is that even in 2020 the central banks are using the same formula. They have printed a lot of money to revive economies. The Federal Reserve of the United States has printed more than $3 trillion between end of February and now.

When did India enter a technical recession?

The Indian economy had contracted by 23.9% during the period April to July. This was the largest contraction among all large economies of the world. It contracted again by 7.5%, between July to September, thus entering a technical recession. Hence, as of end September the Indian economy has been in the midst of a technical recession.

Why has this happened? Private consumption, or the stuff that people buy, and which forms more than half of the Indian GDP, has completely collapsed. Between April and June, it contracted by 26.7%. It contracted by 11.3%, between July and September. As mentioned earlier, this is primarily because of people saving more for a rainy day. This can be gauged from the fact that deposits in the Indian banking system have gone up 6% or Rs 8.1 trillion between end of March, when covid first started to spread in the country, and now.

How can the world get out of this economic mess?

The British economist John Maynard Keynes had a term for a situation like this – the paradox of thrift. When a society as a whole saves substantially more, it hurts the economy, simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Hence, in recessionary times, when individuals and businesses are spending less money, the government needs to chip in and spend more money than it usually would have.

This spending puts more money in hands of people. And if they go out there and spend it, it helps in economic revival. The trouble is that thanks to a recessionary environment, tax collections have collapsed. Some governments have resorted to printing more money to finance extra expenditure and hoping to create growth. But not every country has this option because money printing can lead to higher prices or inflation, as a greater amount of money chases the same set of goods and services.

This piece originally appeared in the Khaleej Times on November 30, 2020.