October 28, 2020

Coronavirus: What is a recession?

A man looks into the window of a closed coffee shop in Cardiff Image copyright Getty Images

The UK, along with much of the rest of the world, is thought to be heading into the worst recession for decades.

So what exactly does that mean?

What is a recession?

In normal times, a country’s economy grows.

Its citizens, on average, get slightly richer as the value of the goods and services it produces – its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – increases.

But sometimes the value of goods and services produced falls.

A recession is usually defined as when this happens for two three-month periods – or quarters – in a row.

If a recession carries on for a long time, or is particularly bad, it is known as a depression.

Why does it matter if there is a recession?

For most people, economic growth is a good thing.

It usually means there are more jobs to go round. Companies are generally more profitable and can afford to pay employees and shareholders more.

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Image caption Gross domestic product is a measure of the value of all the goods and services produced in an economy

A growing economy also means the government gets more money in taxes. So it has room to cut taxes, or spend more on benefits, public services and the wages of government workers.

When the economy shrinks, all these things go into reverse.

Are we in recession yet?

Most of the developed world, saw their economies shrink between January and March, as coronavirus began to hit. UK GDP fell by 2.2% in that first quarter.

Monthly figures show there will be an enormous hit to the economy in the second quarter of the year. The three-month period from March to May saw GDP fall by 19.1%.

So when the final figures for April to June are published, they are almost certain to confirm that the UK is in a severe recession.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts huge falls in GDP for 2020 as a whole – an extraordinary fall of 5.9% for the US and 6.5% for the UK.

In fact the IMF estimates the entire world economy will shrink by 3% this year, making it the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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Image caption Unemployed men queuing for work during the Great Depression of the 1930s

How could a recession affect me?

Some people may lose their jobs, or find it harder to secure new opportunities and promotions.

Graduates and school leavers looking for their first job could find fewer openings available.

Those staying in work may miss out on pay rises – or have to work longer hours or accept pay cuts.

The UK government’s spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), suggested the unemployment rate could more than double, to 10% this summer.

It also estimates that the government might have to borrow more than £300bn to cover the cost of the crisis.

However, the pain of a recession is typically not felt equally across society, and inequality can increase.

For instance, many people in the UK who owned houses with mortgages and kept their jobs during the last recession did OK. The Bank of England cut interest rates to support the economy, which reduced mortgage interest payments for many considerably, leaving them with more money to spend.

Others, such as benefit recipients or public sector workers, did less well.

How long was the last recession?

In the UK the last recession, caused by the global financial crisis, lasted five quarters – from the second quarter of 2008 onwards.

GDP fell by an estimated 7.2% over the whole period.

Unemployment rose sharply, but it began to fall back again two years later.

And there was a massive deficit – the gap between what the government raises in taxes and what it spends on public services.

This resulted in a near-doubling of the national debt, and a decade-long programme of austerity.

There were steep cuts in many areas of government spending, except health, education and international aid.

When will the recession end?

The IMF predicts the recession will be over next year and the world economy will start bouncing back.

But we are in uncharted territory, and no-one knows how strong that recovery will be.

If all the businesses which shut during the pandemic and lockdown could open quickly, the consequences of the recession would be less severe.

However, there are fears over whether the virus will start spreading again, and people may be wary of travelling or going out even if they’re told it’s safe.

Cruises, air travel and business conferences in particular could take years to bounce back.

So the consequences of this recession will be felt for years to come.

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Image caption Industries such as air travel could take a long time to recover from the pandemic

What can be done?

A reliable way of controlling Covid-19, such as a vaccine, would help create a strong recovery.

But until that is found, there are a few remedies available.

In the last recession, central banks cut interest rates to support the economy. That meant people and businesses could borrow more easily, and had more to spend.

But interest rates are already close to zero in many places, and it may not be possible to cut them much further.

Governments around the world are already borrowing huge sums to support their economies through tax cuts and higher public spending – such as furlough schemes, support for businesses, and even direct cash payments to citizens.

But that borrowing comes at a cost, which will be felt for decades to come.

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Media captionHow are we going to pay for the coronavirus crisis?