U-Shaped Recovery

What Is a U-Shaped Recovery?

A U-shaped recovery is a type of economic recession and recovery that resembles a U shape when charted. A U-shaped recovery represents the shape of the chart of certain economic measures, such as employment, gross domestic product (GDP), and industrial output. This shape occurs when the economy experiences a sharp decline in these metrics without a clearly defined trough but instead a period of stagnation followed by a relatively healthy rise back to its previous peak.

A U-shaped recovery is similar to a V-shaped recovery except that the economy spends a longer time slogging along the bottom of the recession rather than immediately rebounding.

Key Takeaways

  • A U-shaped recovery is so-called because major measures of economic performance take on the shape of the letter "U" during these periods.
  • U-shaped recoveries happen when a recession occurs and the economy does not immediately bounce back, instead tumbling along the bottom for a few quarters.
  • It is similar to a V-shaped recovery but more prolonged.
  • Examples of U-shaped recoveries are the 1973-75 Nixon recession and the 1990-91 recession following the S&L crisis.

Understanding U-Shaped Recovery

A U-shaped recovery describes a type of economic recession and recovery that charts a U-shape, established when certain metrics such as employment, GDP, and industrial output sharply decline and then remain depressed typically over a period of 12 to 24 months before they bounce back again. 

A U-shaped rescission features a steep decline in economic output followed by a relatively longer trough than a V-shaped recession, followed by a longer recovery out of that trough. The downturn here is usually deeper and longer than that of a V-shaped recession. In the early stages of a U-shape, economists may wrongly assume that the worst is over and the economy has bottomed out. However, the longer it takes to recover, the more likely the setback will be more severe than originally anticipated. As the recession drags on, companies experience more trouble in paying their bills, and some may have to declare bankruptcy.

During the recovery period, banks are typically reluctant to lend more money to firms, and consumers do not spend freely until they see signs that the economy is recovering, once again increasing consumer confidence. Although spending is a key driver of the economy, it takes time for consumers to feel comfortable once again about spending their money. Businesses must wait for the economic climate to improve before they can bring on additional workers. With fewer jobs available, unemployment tends to increase during such recovery periods.

Meanwhile, a V-shaped recovery may reach the same trough but quickly rebound in a matter of weeks or a few months, rather than dragging out for a year or more.

Other Common Recession Shapes

Recession shapes are shorthand concepts used by economists to characterize various types of recessions. Any number of recession and recovery types may conceivably be charted, although the most common shapes include U-shaped, V-shaped, W-shaped, and L-shaped.

  • V-shaped recessions begin with a steep fall, but they trough and recover quickly. This type of recession tends to be considered a best-case scenario.
  • W-shaped recessions begin like V-shaped recessions, but they turn down again after false signs of recovery are exhibited. These are also known as double-dip recessions, because the economy drops twice prior to full recovery.
  • L-shaped recessions are worst-case scenarios, describing recessions that fall quickly but fail to recover.
  • K-shaped recessions see an uneven recovery as some sectors come back quickly while others lag.

Examples of U-Shaped Recessions

Of the U.S. recessions charted since 1945, approximately half have been described by economists as U-shaped, including the 1973-5 recession and the 1990-91 recession.

1973–1975: Nixonomics, the Gold Window, and Stagflation

One of the most notable U-shaped recessions in U.S. history was the 1973-75 recession. The economy began to shrink in early 1973 and continued to decline or show only slight growth over the next two years, with the GDP dipping 3% at its deepest point before finally recovering in 1975. The roots of this recession lay in the inflationary policies of the preceding years, simultaneously financing the Vietnam War and the Great Society welfare state expansion under President Johnson, Keynesian deficit spending policies under President Nixon after him, and the resulting break of the last links between the U.S. dollar and gold.

The onset of the recession was marked by the 1973 oil crisis and increased oil prices as well as the 1973–74 stock market crash, one of the worst stock market downturns in modern history, which affected all the major stock markets in the world. The recovery was marked by persistently high unemployment and accelerating inflation that would characterize the 1970s as the era of stagflation.

Chart of the percent change in real GDP during the recession of 1973-1975
Image by Sabrina Jiang © Investopedia 2020

1990–1991: The Jobless Recovery

The deregulation of banks and savings & loans (S&L) in the early 1980s kicked off a boom in commercial and residential real estate lending that really took off as the Fed loosened monetary policy and interest rates fell after the economy emerged from recession in 1982. This boom would build into a debt bubble of risky mortgages and shady banking practices that burst in the late 1980s in a debacle known as the S&L crisis. The resulting massive losses, debt deflation, and bank failures across the real estate and financial sector led to recession for the broader economy in mid-1990. 

Although mild GDP growth reappeared the following year, job losses continued and unemployment rose through mid-1992, and total employment did not regain its pre-recession level until 1993. Because of this, the recovery from the 1900–91 recession has been dubbed the Jobless Recovery, and it can be considered an example of a U-shaped recovery. 

Was the COVID Recession U-Shaped?

Many economists have characterized the economic downturn and recovery following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2021 as K-shaped, whereby certain industries suffered (such as travel and hospitality) while others saw positive growth (such as internet communications and online streaming).

How Is a U-Shaped Recession Different from a V-Shaped Recession?

Both a U- and V-shaped recession features a sharp decline followed by a somewhat symmetrical recovery. The main difference is in how long the economy remains depressed at its trough: a V-shape remains there for only a short period with a quick rebound; a U-shape may remain there for far longer before eventually recovering.

How Long Do Recessions Usually Last?

Since 1857, the U.S. has had 34 recessions, ranging in length from two months (February to April 2020) to more than five years (October 1873 to March 1879). In the six instances since 1980, the average recession lasted less than 10 months.

The Bottom Line

A U-shaped recession and recovery is characterized by an initial drop in economic output followed by an extended period of decline and then a slower but eventual economic expansion. In the case of a U-shape, it is sometimes hard to tell if the economy has bottomed out or if things will get worse before they get better. Economists tend to categorize U-shapes into three stages: the recessionary part of the downturn, the economic trough, and the slower but more lasting economic recovery. 

Article Sources
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  1. Congressional Research Service. "The Current Economic Recession: How Long, How Deep, and How Different From the Past?" Page 11.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Charting the Labor Market: Data From the Current Population Survey (CPS)," Pages 8, 13.

  3. Dalton, M., Groen, J. A., Loewenstein, M. A., Piccone, D. S., & Polivka, A. E. "The K-Shaped Recovery: Examining the Diverging Fortunes of Workers in the Recovery From the COVID-19 Pandemic Using Business and Household Survey Microdata." The Journal of Economic Inequality, Vol. 19, No. 3. 2021. Pp. 527-550.

  4. National Bureau of Economic Research. "U.S. Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions."

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