We Will Never See Anything Like It Again: Movements in Real GDP during the Covid-19 Recession

There are a number of ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic was unlike anything the United States has experienced since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Most striking from an economic perspective were the extraordinary swings in real GDP. The following figure shows quarterly changes in real GDP seasonally adjusted and calculated at an annual rate. There were three recessions during this period (shown by the shaded areas).

The first of these recessions occurred during 2001 and was similar to most recessions in the United States since 1950 in being short and relatively mild. Real GDP declined by 1.5 percent during the third quarter of 2001. The recession of 2007–2009 was the most severe to that point since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The worst periods of the 2007–2009 were the fourth quarter of 2008, when real GDP declined by 8.5 percent—the largest decline to that point during any quarter since 1960—and the first quarter of 2009, when real GDP declined by 4.6 percent. 

Turning to the 2020 recession, during the first quarter of 2020, only at the end of which did Covid-19 begin to seriously affect the U.S. economy, real GDP declined by 5.1 percent. Then in the second quarter a collapse in production occurred unlike anything previously experienced in the United States over such a short period: Real GDP declined by 31.2 percent. But that collapse was followed in the next quarter by an extraordinary recovery in production when real GDP increased by 33.8 percent—by far the largest increase in a single quarter in U.S. history.

The following figure shows the changes in the components of real GDP during the second and third quarters of 2020. In the second quarter of 2020, consumption spending declined by about the same percentage as GDP, but investment spending declined by more, as many residential and commercial construction projects were closed. Exports declined by nearly 60 percent and imports declined by nearly as much as many ports were temporarily closed. In the third quarter of 2020, many state and local governments relaxed their restrictions on business operations and the components of spending bounced back, although they remained below their levels of late 2019 until mid-2021. 

Even when compared with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the movements in real GDP during the Covid-19 pandemic stand out for the size of the fluctuations. The official U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data on real GDP are available only annually for the 1930s. The following figure shows the changes in these annual data for the years 1929 to 1939. As severe as the Great Depression was, in 1932, the worst year of the downturn, real GDP declined by less than 13 percent—or only about a third as much as real GDP declined during the worst of the 2020 recession.

We have to hope that we will never again experience a pandemic as severe as the Covid-19 pandemic or fluctuations in the economy as severe as those of 2020.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Note: Because the BEA doesn’t provide an estimate of real GDP in 1928, our value for the change in real GDP during 1929 is the percentage change in real GDP per capita from 1928 to 1929 using the data on real GDP per capita compiled by Robert J. Barro and José F. Ursúa. LINK

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