Double-Dip Recession


Investopedia / Laura Porter

What Is Double-Dip Recession?

A double-dip recession refers to a recession followed by a short-lived recovery, followed by another recession. For whatever reason, after the initial recession has passed, the recovery stalls and the second round of recession sets in just as, or even before, the economy has fully recovered from the losses of the initial recession. One good indicator of a double-dip recession is when gross domestic product (GDP) growth slides back to negative after a few quarters of positive growth. A double-dip recession is also known as a W-shaped recovery

Key Takeaways

  • A double-dip recession is when a recession is followed by a short-lived recovery and another recession.
  • Double-dip recessions can be caused by a variety of reasons, and involve prolonged unemployment and low GDP.
  • The last double-dip recession in the United States occurred during the early 1980s.

What Is A Double Dip Recession?

Understanding Double-Dip Recession

The causes for a double-dip recession vary but often include a slowdown in the production of goods and services that brings renewed layoffs and investment cutbacks from the previous downturn. A double-dip (or even triple-dip) is can have severe implications for the economy, and may be only marginally better than a sustained depression. 

A double-dip recession occurs when the economy suffers an initial recession and then begins to recover, but then something happens to disrupt the process of recovery. Major economic shocks, ongoing debt deflation, and new public policies that increase price rigidities or disincentivize investment, employment, or production can often lead to renewed rounds of recession before the economy can recover fully. 

Economic indicators can provide early warning of a double-dip recession. Double-dip signals are signs that an economy will move back into a deeper and longer recession, making a recovery even more difficult. Some indicators of a double-dip recession include high or accelerating consumer price inflation during the initial recession. During the interim recovery, sluggish job creation, signs of secondary asset price bubbles yet to burst, and/or renewed rise in unemployment can occur.

Inflation Begets Recession—The Early 1980’s

The last double-dip recession in the United States happened in the early 1980s, when the economy experienced back-to-back episodes of recession. From January to July 1980, the economy shrank at an 8 percent annual rate. A quick period of growth followed, and in the first three months of 1981, the economy grew at an annual rate of a little over 8 percent. The economy fell back into recession from July 1981 to November 1982. The economy then entered a strong growth period for the remainder of the 1980s.

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The seeds of a double dip recession were laid in the early 1970’s when President Richard Nixon famously “closed the gold window”, breaking the last link of the U.S. dollar to anything resembling a commodity standard. This converted the U.S. dollar into a full fiat currency with zero physical constraints on the ability of the Federal Reserve to create unlimited quantities of new money. 

This led to high and at times rapidly accelerating erosion of the dollar’s purchasing power throughout the 1970’s, rising to 15% consumer price inflation per year by the end of the decade. Persistent inflation in the 1970’s led to a situation known as stagflation, or high unemployment combined with high inflation, and there were fears that the dollar might collapse amid hyperinflation or a crack-up boom

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker as Chair of the Federal Reserve with the explicit mission of getting inflation under control. Volcker dramatically slowed the rate of growth in the U.S. money supply to bring price inflation to heel. 

This provoked an immediate, but relatively short, recession through the first half of 1980. Through the second half of 1980 and into the end of 1981 the economy began to recover. Real GDP rose, but unemployment and inflation both remained stubbornly high at around 7.5% and 8.8% (respectively) through this period. 

With inflation again accelerating in late 1981 the Volcker Fed maintained its tight money/high interest rate policy and the economy re-entered recession. Unemployment rose to 10.8% by the end of 1982. During this time Volcker faced increasingly sharp criticism and even threats of impeachment from the U.S. Congress and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan. 

In the end however, inflation was brought under control and the economy quickly recovered from the recession. Unemployment fell from its peak just as sharply as it had risen, in a V-shaped recovery, and the economy entered a new era of relatively stable growth, low unemployment, and mild inflation later known as the Great Moderation

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an economic recession?

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) defines a recession as a “significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts for more than a few months.”

What is a double-dip recession?

A double-dip recession occurs when negative growth of gross domestic product (GDP) recurs after a short-lived recovery from the initial decline in economic activity. A double-dip recession is also known as a W-shaped recovery. 

When was the last double-dip recession?

The last double-dip recession in the United States occurred during the early 1980s. The total length of the double-dip recession was 23 months, starting in January 1980 and ending in November 1982. The economy then entered a period of growth for the remainder of the 1980s.

Are we heading into a recession in 2023?

U.S. GDP declined in the first two quarters of 2022 but grew at over 2 per cent in the third quarter. That third quarter growth means that the US economy is not currently in a recession. However, to dampen the currently high rate of inflation the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised U.S. interest rates, which might well lead to a recession in 2023.

Is a double-dip recession likely in 2023 or 2024?

If the U.S. GDP does decline in early 2023 as a result of the tightening by the Federal Reserve and then recovers, there is the possibility that GDP growth could slide into another decline in late 2023 or early 2024, therefore creating a double-dip recession.

How long do double-dip recessions last?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, recessions are generally brief, and yet the time for the economy to recover or surpass its previous level can be quite extended. While there is no fixed rule about the total length of a double-dip recession, the total combined time of a double-dip recession can be 23 or more months, as experienced in the double-dip recession of the 1980s. Note that those recessions were followed by periods of growth. Therefore the 23 months were not successive, rather they were in six- and 17-month periods.

How can we predict a double-dip recession?

Inflation and rising interest rates are good predictors for an initial recession. When it comes to a double-dip recession, negative GDP growth occurs after a period of positive growth. This decrease in GDP is generally coupled with a slowdown in the production of goods and services, resulting in renewed layoffs and investment cutbacks. Therefore, recurring inflation and rising interest rates, combined with a declining GDP after a period of growth, indicate a potential double-dip recession.

What could cause a double-dip recession in 2024?

Inflation could return after appearing to be under control, leading the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again. Factors that could lead to increased inflation include persistent wage increases, strong demand for products and services, and growth in the supply of money.

The Bottom Line

A double-dip recession occurs when a short-lived recovery after a recession is followed by another recession, preventing the economy from fully recovering from the initial drop in economic activity.

Economists have identified several causes for a double-dip recession, including ongoing inflation and public policies that disincentivize investment, employment or production of goods and services. 

While there is no certainty that a double-dip recession will occur if the U.S. economy does decline in the fourth quarter of 2022 and continues to decline in the first half of 2023.The initial recovery from that downturn could be hampered by repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and persistent high prices for energy and food. Those factors could lead to a double-dip recession and a W-shaped recovery of the U.S. economy. 

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. "The Employment Situation in 1981: New Recession Takes Its Toll," Page 4.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment and Unemployment: A Report on 1980," Page 4.

  3. U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. "Unemployment in 1982: The Cost to Workers and Their Families," Page 30.

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