Measuring the Health of the Economy
The Business Cycle
The economic ups and downs resulting from expansion and contraction constitute the business cycle. A typical cycle runs from three to five years but could last much longer. Though typically irregular, a cycle can be divided into four general phases of prosperity, recession, depression (which the cycle generally skips), and recovery:
- During prosperity, the economy expands, unemployment is low, incomes rise, and consumers buy more products. Businesses respond by increasing production and offering new and better products.
- Eventually, however, things slow down. GDP decreases, unemployment rises, and because people have less money to spend, business revenues decline. This slowdown in economic activity is called a recession. Economists often say that we're entering a recession when GDP goes down for two consecutive quarters.
- Generally, a recession is followed by a recovery in which the economy starts growing again.
- If, however, a recession lasts a long time (perhaps a decade or so), while unemployment remains very high and production is severely curtailed, the economy could sink into a depression. Though not impossible, it's unlikely that the United States will experience another severe depression like that of the 1930s. The federal government has a number of economic tools (some of which we'll discuss shortly) with which to fight any threat of a depression.