Two consecutive quarters of decline in real GDP is commonly taken to be a recession. The National Bureau of Economic Research, a private organization, effectively decides when recessions occur, however, and the actual dating process is determined by judgment rather than a formal rule.
One interesting point is that there is no widespread, unique term for periods that are not recessions. That is, we can refer to expansions and contractions, but there is no universal pairing of ____ and recessions.
Please refer to The NBER’s Recession Dating Procedure for more details. A couple of key excerpts follow:
Q: The financial press often states the definition of a recession as two consecutive quarters of decline in real GDP. How does that relate to the NBER's recession dating procedure?
A:: Most of the recessions identified by our procedures do consist of two or more quarters of declining real GDP, but not all of them. According to current data for 2001, the present recession falls into the general pattern, with three consecutive quarters of decline. Our procedure differs from the two-quarter rule in a number of ways. First, we consider the depth as well as the duration of the decline in economic activity. Recall that our definition includes the phrase, "a significant decline in economic activity." Second, we use a broader array of indicators than just real GDP. One reason for this is that the GDP data are subject to considerable revision. Third, we use monthly indicators to arrive at a monthly chronology.
Q: How does the NBER balance the differing behavior of employment and output?
A: The NBER considers real GDP to be the single measure that comes closest to capturing what it means by "aggregate economic activity." The committee therefore places considerable weight on real GDP and other output measures. Following the precedents established in many decades of maintaining its business cycle chronology, however, the committee considers a wide range of indicators of economic activity. There is no fixed rule for how the different indicators are weighted.
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Balance of Payments
Endogenous Technical Change
Federal Funds (Fed Funds) Rate
Fixed Exchange Rate
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Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
Production Possibility Frontier
Reservation Wage Rate
Theory of the Consumer
Theory of the Firm
Velocity of Money