Mar 25, 2024

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You know what they say about gravity: What goes up must come down. That’s just as true of the economy as it was of Isaac Newton and his apple. The economy cycles through periods of expansion, slowdowns, recessions, and rebounds. And when it comes to the economy, there’s one more rule you need to be aware of: What goes down eventually goes back up.

Government economists have not declared a recession. But things change, and watching signs like unemployment rates and business activity can help you understand the direction of the economy. 

Recession or not, you will want to get your finances in order so you can deal with whatever comes your way, as well as benefit from a better economy in the future.

“The recovery phase of the business cycle can be a time of great opportunity for consumers,” said Li Ma, Treasurer, Discover® Financial Services.

What is the economic cycle?

The economic cycle, also known as the business cycle, describes the regular ups and downs of the economy.

The economic cycle has four phases. Understanding them could help you make informed decisions about your money before a recession. And it may help you get ready for what comes after a recession.

The four phases of the economic cycle are:4

  • Expansion: This is the period of economic growth that follows the bottom of the cycle as a recession ends.
  • Peak: When the expansion reaches its highest point.
  • Contraction: In this phase, economic activity shrinks, and a recession could start.
  • Trough: The contraction bottoms out and economic activity picks up again.
Graph shows the four phases of the economic cycle Graph shows a visual representation of changes in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the course of one complete economic cycle. The Y-axis represents GDP; the X-axis represents time. The graph shows five phases: Expansion, Peak, Contraction, Trough, and Expansion.


What is a recession?

A common way to define a recession is when the gross domestic product (GDP) falls for two quarters in a row. (GDP is the total economic output of the country.) But that is not an official definition.5

A committee of economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research decides when a recession starts and stops.6 According to this group, a recession is “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.”

The good news is that the economy is usually in expansion mode.1 But recessions do happen. Significant events like a banking crisis or a stock market plunge can set them off. Since the end of World War II, there have been 12 recessions, and the average length of a recession is about 10 months.1

There are different kinds of recessions

While recessions have many similarities, they are by no means all the same. Some recessions are deep and short. Economists call these “V-shaped recessions.”

Others are less severe, but last longer and are called “U-shaped” recessions.

Some recessions are shaped like a “W,” also known as a double-dip recession. That’s when economic activity falls, then rebounds, falls again, and rebounds for good.

How does a recession affect me?

They say that when your neighbor loses their job, it’s a recession. But when you lose your job, it’s a depression. People feel recessions differently depending on what happens to them.

Recessions can impact the average person in a number of ways. The biggest is through layoffs and difficult job markets.

A recession might make it hard to land a new job, and wages are likely to be lower during or after a recession than before. It could be hard for recent college graduates to find their first jobs. During the 2007-09 recession, for example, the unemployment rate reached 10%,7 almost three times the June 2023 rate of 3.6%.8

The stock market also usually falls during a recession. That can cause your retirement savings and other investments to fall in value.

Lastly, it’s harder to borrow money during a recession. Lenders may want to lend to only the most creditworthy borrowers because they worry about getting paid back.

Even if your job is secure and you don’t have an investment portfolio, you might still feel uneasy during a recession. It’s unsettling to see those close to you struggling.

"By taking prudent steps to lower monthly expenses during economic good times, consumers can bolster their finances to better weather future economic downturns."

- Li Ma, Treasurer, Discover Financial Services

What happens after a recession?

As a recession lifts, you might start to see improvements. In the beginning, these economic “green shoots” might be small and hard to notice. It will take time to see more concrete signs in your own life.

These are some common signs that a recession is coming to an end. Being aware of them may help you take advantage of improving economic conditions.

Lower prices

Costs may return to normal after a period of high inflation.

Lower interest rates

The Federal Reserve may lower interest rates during a recession in hopes of increasing business activity.

More lending

Banks might loosen some of their lending standards to make borrowing easier for people.

New business opportunities

A recession can be a good opportunity to launch a new business. Workers may be  more willing to accept lower wages and lower interest rates make business financing more affordable.

Some iconic American businesses started during past recessions, such as Revlon (1932),9 Hyatt (1957),10 and Microsoft (1975).11

“Recessions can also create opportunities for consumers,” Ma said. “People who have maintained a strong credit profile and possess marketable job skills usually fare best during and after a recession.”

What should I do after a recession?

Because periods of growth tend to last longer than recessions, they may give you time to rebuild your finances if they took a hit during the last downturn.

Low unemployment rates and higher salaries can help you save more money for your future.

And if interest rates fall, it could be an excellent time to consolidate higher-interest debt into a lower, fixed-rate loan—which  may free up money in your day-to-day budget.

“By taking prudent steps to lower monthly expenses during economic good times, consumers can bolster their finances to better weather future economic downturns,” Ma noted.

The bottom line

Knowing all the phases of the economic cycle can help you understand where the economy stands and what actions you should take.

Recessions can be unpleasant and even a little scary. But remember: They are temporary. You  could use periods after a recession ends to improve your financial position by building your savings and reducing debt.

That way, you could be better prepared for whatever phase of the economic cycle comes next.

Want to read more about how to prepare your finances?

Learn How to Prepare for a Recession

Articles may contain information from third parties. The inclusion of such information does not imply an affiliation with the bank or bank sponsorship, endorsement, or verification regarding the third party or information.
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