The Worst Economic Contractions in U.S. History

An economic contraction is a decline in national output as measured by gross domestic product. That includes a drop in real personal income, industrial production, and retail sales. It increases unemployment rates. Companies stop hiring to save money in the face of lower demand. Toward the middle of a contraction, they start laying off workers, sending unemployment rates higher. It's one of the four phases of the business cycle, also known as the boom and bust cycle.

The National Bureau of Economic Research uses economic indicators to determine when a contraction has occurred. Since 1854, there have been 33 contractions. They typically last 17.5 months each. America’s history of recessions shows that economic contractions are inevitable, albeit painful, parts of the business cycle.

A contraction is caused by a loss in confidence that slows demand. An event, like a stock market correction or crash, triggers it. But the true cause precedes the well-publicized event. It's typically an increase in interest rates that decrease the capital

Investors sell stocks, sending prices downward and reducing financing for large corporations. Businesses cut spending, then lay off workers. That dries up consumer spending, which creates further business losses and layoffs.  To understand this economic downturn, one has to be aware of the causes of the business cycle, especially the causes of a recession.

A contraction ends when prices fall enough to attract renewed demand. Central bank monetary policy and government fiscal policy can end a contraction more quickly. They will lower interest rates and taxes, and increase the money supply and spending.  These policies are integral to a nation’s strategies for supplying the best unemployment solutions.

1920s

When did the Great Depression start
President Herbert Hoover and His Wife, Lou Henry Hoover, in Chicago at the Final Game of the 1929 World Series Between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Athletics, October 1929. the Great Depression Had Already Begun. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images 

There were plenty of economic contractions during the "Roaring Twenties." The first contraction began in January 1920. One reason was the high maximum income tax rate of 73% on incomes more than $1 million. Nearly 70% of federal revenue came from income taxes. In 1921, Warren Harding became President. Fortunately, the recession ended in July without any intervention.

Congress increased the corporate tax rate from 10% to 12.5%. It also passed the Emergency Immigration Act to restrict the number of immigrants to 3% of the 1910 population. In 1922, Harding lowered the top tax rate to 58%. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, became President. His motto was to lower the top tax rate again to 43.5%. Supreme Court revoked minimum wage for women in Washington D.C.

The recession began in May 1922 but ended in July 1924.  Despite the contraction, the stock market began a six-year bull market. It was fueled by speculation and leverage. Coolidge raised the top tax rate to 46%, then lowered it the following year to 25%. 

Another contraction began in October 1926. It ended in November 1927 after the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates. Congress raised the corporate tax rate to 13.5%. 

1930s: The Great Depression

Soup Line
A Line of Men Wait Outside a Soup Kitchen Opened During the Depression by Mobster Al Capone, Chicago, Illinois, February 1931. the Storefront Sign Reads 'Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.'. PhotoQuest / Getty Images 

The Great Depression was the biggest economic contraction in U.S. history. It began in 1929, the year Herbert Hoover became president. He lowered the top income tax rate to 24%, and the top corporate tax rate to 12%.

But it was too late. The economy contracted in August, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression.  In September, the stock market peaked, crashing on October 24.  

1940s

Harry Truman
7th September 1945: President Harry S Truman (1884 - 1972), Holding up the Official Japanese Document of Surrender With Emperor Hirohito'S Signature at a White House Meeting. Fox Photos / Getty Images 

There were two recessions in the 1940s. Both were caused by adjustments in demobilizing after World War II. The government cut back production of military weapons. It took years before business production completely replaced it.  

The first recession occurred between February and October 1945 according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. That sent economic growth for the year down 1.0%. In 1946, it dropped 11.6%. It fell by 1.1%  in 1947.

The economy contracted again between November 1948 and October 1949. This time, GDP fell just 0.6% in 1949.

1950s

President Eisenhower
General Dwight D Eisenhower (1890 - 1969), Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Watches the Allied Landing Operations From the Deck of a Warship in the English Channel During World War Ii, June 1944. Eisenhower Was Later Elected the 34th President of the United States. Keystone / Getty Images

In July 1953 the economy contracted for 10 months. It was due to the end of the Korean War. Unemployment peaked at 6.1% in September 1954.  GDP contracted 0.6% in 1954.

In August 1957, the economy contracted until April 1958. GDP fell 0.75 in 1958.  Unemployment peaked at 7.1% in September 1958.

1960s

JFK
Circa 1962: American President John F Kennedy (1917 - 1963), Wearing Dark Sunglasses, Sits Next to Us Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Lemay. Hulton Archive / Getty Images 

In April 1960, the economy contracted for 10 months. But it recovered enough so that growth was 2.6% for the year. Unemployment reached a peak of 7.1% in May 1961. President Kennedy ended the recession with stimulus spending.

1970s

Nixon and Brezhnev
Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev Signs an Agreement With President Richard Nixon June 20, 1973 at Camp David, Md. Brezhnev Met With Members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Sign an Agreement to Prevent Nuclear War With the Us. Dirck Halstead / Liaison / Getty Images 

In November 1973, the economy contracted until March 1975. It was relatively mild. The economy shrank 0.5% in 1974 and 0.2% in 1975.

President Richard Nixon fought back hard. He authorized wage-price controls. It kept prices and salaries too high. Consumers cut back on demand. Businesses laid off workers. Second, Nixon removed the United States dollar from the gold standard. That created inflation. The price of gold skyrocketed to $120 an ounce, and the dollar's value plummeted. His destructive policies created stagflation and three consecutive quarters of contraction

1980s

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan Giving a Speech in the Oval Office. Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

The 1980 recession was the third worst economic contraction in U.S. history. It was tough to beat because there was also double-digit inflation. A contraction with inflation is called stagflation. That was due to President Nixon's economic policies. The Fed raised interest rates to 20% to combat inflation. That hammered business spending and created the contraction.

It began in January 1980. It seemed like it was over in six months. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan took office. The Fed began lowering interest rates since inflation was at normal levels. But the contraction returned in July 1981 and lasted until November 1982. The economy contracted for six of the 12 quarters. That sent GDP down 0.3% in 1980 and 1.8% in 1982.

Unemployment increased to a record 10.8% in November 1982. It stayed above 10% for 10 months.  

Reagan lowered the top income tax rate from 70% to 28%. He also reduced the corporate tax rate from 48% to 34%. Although he promised to reduce government spending, he doubled spending instead. His expansionary fiscal policies ended the recession.

1990s

President George H.W. Bush
U.S. President George H.W. Bush Speaks in the Roosevelt Room 1992 in Washington, Dc. David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images 

In July 1990, the economy contracted until March 1991. It was caused by the Savings and Loan Crisis in 1989. GDP was 0.1% in 1991.

2000s

George W. Bush
Getty Images

In the 2001 recession, the economy contracted until November 2001. The Y2K scare caused it by driving demand for computer equipment. That created a boom and subsequent bust. It was aggravated by the 9/11 attack. The economy contracted in two quarters: Q1 by  -1.1% and Q3 by -1.7%.

In 2008, the Great Recession was the worst U.S. contraction since the Depression. The economy shrank 0.1% in 2008 and 2.5%\% in 2009.