Causes of an Economic Recession

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Economic recessions are caused by a loss of business and consumer confidence. As confidence recedes, so does demand. A recession is a tipping point in the business cycle when ongoing economic growth peaks, reverses, and becomes ongoing economic contraction.

12 Typical Causes of a Recession

A decline in the gross domestic product growth is often listed as a cause of a recession, but it's more of a warning signal that a recession is already underway. The GDP is only reported after a quarter is over, so the recession has probably already been underway for a couple months by the time the GDP turns negative.

An economic dip, as measured as a decline in GDP, must occur for two or more successive quarters to qualify as an official recession.

1. Loss of Confidence in Investment and the Economy

Loss of confidence prompts consumers to stop buying and move into defensive mode. Panic sets in when a critical mass moves toward the exit. Businesses run fewer employment ads, and the economy adds fewer jobs. Retail sales slow. Manufacturers cut back in reaction to falling orders, so the unemployment rate rises. The federal government and the central bank must step in to restore confidence.

2. High Interest Rates

Interest rates limit liquidity—money that's available to invest—when they rise. The Federal Reserve has been the biggest culprit here in the past. The Fed has often raised interest rates to protect the value of the dollar. For example, it did so to battle the stagflation of the late 1970s, and this contributed to the 1980 recession.

The Fed did the same thing decades ago to protect the dollar/gold relationship, worsening the Great Depression.

3. A Stock Market Crash

A sudden loss of confidence in investing can create a subsequent bear market, draining capital out of businesses.

4. Falling Housing Prices and Sales

Homeowners can be forced to cut back on spending when they lose equity and can no longer take out second mortgages. This was the initial trigger that set off the Great Recession of 2008. Banks eventually lost money on complicated investments that were based on underlying home values, which were in decline.

5. Manufacturing Orders Slow Down

One predictor of a recession is a decline in manufacturing orders. Orders for durable goods began falling in October 2006, long before the 2008 recession hit.

6. Deregulation

Lawmakers can trigger a recession when they remove important safeguards. The seeds of the S&L crisis and the subsequent recession were planted in 1982 when the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act was passed. The law removed restrictions on loan-to-value ratios for these banks.

7. Poor Management

Bad business practices often cause recessions. The savings and loans crisis caused the 1990 recession. More than 1,000 banks, with total assets of $500 billion, failed as a result of land flips, questionable loans, and illegal activities. 

8. Wage-Price Controls

The imposition of wage and price controls has occurred many times in history, but it's only led to a recession once.

President Richard Nixon froze wages and prices to stop inflation in 1971, but employers laid off workers because they weren't allowed to reduce their wages. Demand fell, because families had lower incomes. Companies couldn't reduce prices, so they laid off still more workers, which led to the 1973 recession.

9. Post-War Slowdowns

The U.S. economy slowed down after the Korean War, which caused the 1953 recession. Similar reductions after World War II caused the 1945 recession.

10. Credit Crunches

A credit crunch occurred in 2008 when Bear Stearns announced losses due to the collapse of two hedge funds it owned. The funds were heavily invested in collateralized debt obligations, and banks that were in a similar over-invested condition panicked when Moody's downgraded its debt. They stopped lending to each other, creating a massive credit crunch.

11. When Asset Bubbles Burst

Asset bubbles occur when the prices of investments such as gold, stocks, or housing become inflated beyond their sustainable value. The bubble itself sets the stage for a recession to occur when it bursts.

12. Deflation

Prices falling over time have a worse effect on the economy than inflation. Deflation reduces the value of goods and services being sold on the market, which encourages people to wait to buy until prices are lower. Demand falls, causing a recession. Deflation caused by trade wars aggravated the Great Depression.

Causes of the 2008 Recession

Irrational exuberance in the housing market led many people to buy houses they couldn't afford, leading up to 2008. Many thought that housing prices could only go up. Low-interest rates in 2004 and 2005 helped to create the housing bubble. Many buyers bought homes they couldn't afford, with interest-only loans.

The bubble burst as housing prices started to decline in 2006. The decline caught many homeowners off guard, those who had taken loans with little money down. They defaulted on their mortgages as they realized that they would lose money by selling their houses for less than their mortgages. This led to foreclosure by the banks holding the mortgages.

An escalating foreclosure rate panicked many banks and hedge funds. They'd purchased mortgage-backed securities on the secondary market, and they were facing huge losses. Banks became afraid to lend to each other by August 2007, because they didn't want toxic mortgage loans as collateral.

The credit crunch eventually led to the $700 billion bailout, bankruptcies, and government nationalization of Bear Stearns, the American International Group, Inc., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, IndyMac Bank, and Washington Mutual. By December 2008, employment was declining more rapidly than it had in the 2001 recession.

The government launched an economic stimulus plan in 2009. It was designed to spend $185 billion in 2009. In fact, it halted a four-quarter decline in GDP by the third quarter of 2009, thus ending the recession.

Unemployment continued to rise to 10%, and many business leaders still expected a "W" shaped recession by the end of 2010. That pattern begins on an upswing but plunges again. High unemployment rates still persisted into 2011.

The 2020 Recession

The U.S. economy contracted 5% in the first quarter 2020. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted in May 2020 that it would contract by another 38% in the second quarter. It did not expect full recovery by the end of 2021.

The cause of the 2020 recession was a "black swan event" as the global COVID-19 pandemic required most businesses to shut down to avoid spreading the coronavirus.