We should rename the Great recession as Great contraction

Ken Rogoff tries to settle the debate on severity of the downturn and policy measures needed (HT: Divya Iyer).

He says the first thing to fix is the name – Great recession. By recession people simply assume a cyclical downturn which has standard policy measures (cutting rates, some stimulus etc). This is anything but a simple recession. This approach in turn has led to policies etc which are not suited for the harsh times:

Why is everyone still referring to the recent financial crisis as the “Great Recession”? The term, after all, is predicated on a dangerous misdiagnosis of the problems that confront the United States and other countries, leading to bad forecasts and bad policy.

The phrase “Great Recession” creates the impression that the economy is following the contours of a typical recession, only more severe – something like a really bad cold. That is why, throughout this downturn, forecasters and analysts who have tried to make analogies to past post-war US recessions have gotten it so wrong. Moreover, too many policymakers have relied on the belief that, at the end of the day, this is just a deep recession that can be subdued by a generous helping of conventional policy tools, whether fiscal policy or massive bailouts.

It is the second Great contraction first being Great Depression:

A more accurate, if less reassuring, term for the ongoing crisis is the “Second Great Contraction.” Carmen Reinhart and I proposed this moniker in our 2009 book This Time is Different, based on our diagnosis of the crisis as a typical deep financial crisis, not a typical deep recession. The first “Great Contraction” of course, was the Great Depression, as emphasized by Anna Schwarz and the late Milton Friedman. The contraction applies not only to output and employment, as in a normal recession, but to debt and credit, and the deleveraging that typically takes many years to complete.

Why argue about semantics? Well, imagine you have pneumonia, but you think it is only a bad cold. You could easily fail to take the right medicine, and you would certainly expect your life to return to normal much faster than is realistic.

Hmmm. This naming the disease correctly will lead to right kind of diagnosis as well:

In a conventional recession, the resumption of growth implies a reasonably brisk return to normalcy. The economy not only regains its lost ground, but, within a year, it typically catches up to its rising long-run trend.

The aftermath of a typical deep financial crisis is something completely different. As Reinhart and I demonstrated, it typically takes an economy more than four years just to reach the same per capita income level that it had attained at its pre-crisis peak. So far, across a broad range of macroeconomic variables, including output, employment, debt, housing prices, and even equity, our quantitative benchmarks based on previous deep post-war financial crises have proved far more accurate than conventional recession logic.

Many commentators have argued that fiscal stimulus has largely failed not because it was misguided, but because it was not large enough to fight a “Great Recession.” But, in a “Great Contraction,” problem number one is too much debt. If governments that retain strong credit ratings are to spend scarce resources effectively, the most effective approach is to catalyze debt workouts and reductions.

He says in early part of the great recession..er sorry great contraction he said higher inflation is a good way to deflate the debt. But was ignored as people thought it is just another recession:

In my December 2008 column, I argued that the only practical way to shorten the coming period of painful deleveraging and slow growth would be a sustained burst of moderate inflation, say, 4-6% for several years. Of course, inflation is an unfair and arbitrary transfer of income from savers to debtors. But, at the end of the day, such a transfer is the most direct approach to faster recovery. Eventually, it will take place one way or another, anyway, as Europe is painfully learning.

Some observers regard any suggestion of even modestly elevated inflation as a form of heresy. But Great Contractions, as opposed to recessions, are very infrequent events, occurring perhaps once every 70 or 80 years. These are times when central banks need to spend some of the credibility that they accumulate in normal times.

He says we should replace this name quickly to get the policy right. It is better to be late than never.

3 Responses to “We should rename the Great recession as Great contraction”

  1. Nemo Neutrality Says:

    Great post and great analogy with disease. Also it will be instructive to analyze how did we get to 2008 financial crisis. It was a policy failure to repeal of the Glass Steagall Act which legalized merger of banks and its investment arms and it led to highly leveraged financial institutions. It was their risk taking which led to housing bubble. Banks got bailed out when they should have been folded. Businesses and consumers are still to much in debt and money supply will contract as debt is repaid. Thus contraction is good in this situation as prices will come down to sustainable level.

    • Nemo Neutrality Says:

      Also, popular belief is that contraction is bad and inflation is good. This is based on Keynesian economics which says that you can recover from crisis by simply spending money into economy. This is like giving sugar IV to patient and expect him/her to recover from pneumonia. Its interfering with free markets. Inflation breaches a basic trust between the government and its citizens because government is using inflation to confiscate people’s wealth.

      Best we to deal with this is to let free market decide. If you f-up, you bear the cost. No government bailing you out. So people will think twice before making bad decisions.

  2. terms and conditions Says:

    terms and conditions…

    […]We should rename the Great recession as Great contraction « Mostly Economics[…]…

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