What Is the Business Cycle?

The Four Critical Stages

Illustration of the business cycle

© The Balance, 2018

The business cycle is the natural rise and fall of economic growth that occurs over time. The cycle is a useful tool for analyzing the economy. It can also help you make better financial decisions. 


Each business cycle has four phases. They are expansion, peak, contraction, and trough. They don’t occur at regular intervals. But they do have recognizable indicators.

An expansion is between the trough and the peak. That's when the economy is growing. The gross domestic product, which measures economic output, is increasing. The GDP growth rate is in the healthy 2% to 3% range. Unemployment reaches its natural rate of 4.5% to 5%. Inflation is near its 2% target. The stock market is in a bull market. A well-managed economy can remain in the expansion phase for years. That's called a Goldilocks economy.

The expansion phase nears its end when the economy overheats. That's when the GDP growth rate is greater than 3%. Inflation is greater than 2% and may reach the double digits. Investors are in a state of "irrational exuberance." That's when they create asset bubbles. 

The peak is the second phase. It is the month when the expansion transitions into the contraction phase.

The third phase is a contraction. It starts at the peak and ends at the trough. Economic growth weakens. GDP growth falls below 2%. When it turns negative, that is what economists call a recession. Mass layoffs make headline news. The unemployment rate begins to rise. It doesn’t happen until toward the end of the contraction phase because it's a lagging indicator. Businesses wait to hire new workers until they are sure the recession is over. Stocks enter a bear market as investors sell. 

The trough is the fourth phase. That's the month when the economy transitions from the contraction phase to the expansion phase. It's when the economy hits bottom.

The business cycle's four phases can be so severe that they’re also called the boom and bust cycle. ​

Who Measures the Business Cycle?

The National Bureau of Economic Research determines business cycle stages using quarterly GDP growth rates. It also uses monthly economic indicators, such as employment, real personal incomeindustrial production, and retail sales. It takes time to analyze this data, so the NBER doesn't tell you the phase until after it's begun. But you can look at the indicators yourself to determine what phase of the business cycle we are currently in.

Who Manages the Business Cycle

The government manages the business cycle. Legislators use fiscal policy to influence the economy. They use expansionary fiscal policy when they want to end a recession. They should use contractionary fiscal policy to keep the economy from overheating. But that rarely happens because they get voted out of office when they raise taxes or cut popular programs.

The nation's central bank uses monetary policy. It lowers interest rates to end a contraction or trough. That's called expansionary monetary policy. The central bank raises rates to manage an expansion so it doesn't peak. That's contractionary monetary policy.

The goal of economic policy is to keep the economy growing at a sustainable rate. It should be strong enough to create jobs for everyone who wants one but slow enough to avoid inflation

Three factors cause each phase of the business cycle. Those are the forces of supply and demand, the availability of capital, and consumer confidence. The most critical is confidence in the future. The economy grows when there is faith in the future and in policymakers. It does the opposite when confidence drops. The history of U.S. business cycles since 1929 can give an overview of how this measure of confidence has affected the U.S. economy through the decades.


The 2008 recession was so nasty because the economy immediately contracted 2.3% in the first quarter of 2008. When it rebounded 2.1% in the second quarter, everyone thought the downturn was over. But it contracted another 2.1% in the third quarter, before plummeting 8.4% in the fourth quarter. The economy received another wallop in the first quarter of 2009 when it contracted a brutal 4.4%. In 2008, the unemployment rate rose from 5% in January to 7.3% by December.

The trough occurred in the second quarter of 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. GDP contracted 0.6%. Unemployment rose to 9.5%.

The expansion phase started in the third quarter of 2009 when GDP rose by 1.5%. That was thanks to the stimulus spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The unemployment rate continued to worsen, reaching 10% in October. Four years into the expansion phase, the unemployment rate was still above 7%. That's because the contraction phase was so harsh. 

The peak that preceded the 2008 recession occurred in the third quarter of 2007. GDP growth was 2.2%. 

Bottom Line

The business cycle shows the phases an economy goes through. A nation’s GDP rises or falls according to the economic cycle it is in. Four major phases compose a complete business cycle:

  • Expansion.
  • Peak.
  • Contraction, recession, or depression.
  • Trough.

All businesses and economies go through this cycle. The length of time spent in each phase varies.

Using monthly indicators and quarterly GDP growth rates, the NBER determines where the economy is at in the business cycle. The Federal Reserve helps manage the cycle with monetary policy. The federal government wields tools of fiscal policy. Throughout the cycle, both try to keep up consumer confidence in managing the economy.

Article Sources

  1. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. "What Are Business Cycles and How Do They Affect the Economy?" Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  2. Congressional Research Service. "Introduction to U.S. Economy: The Business Cycle and Growth." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  3. Nasdaq. "We May Be in a Goldilocks Economy, and Why That Isn't a Good Thing." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  4. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Asset Bubbles: Detecting and Measuring Them Are Not Easy Tasks." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  5. International Monetary Fund. "Recession: When Bad Times Prevail." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  6. Fidelity. "Bear Market Basics." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  7. National Bureau of Economic Research. "The NBER's Business Cycle Dating Committee." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  8. National Bureau of Economic Research. "The NBER's Business Cycle Dating Procedure: Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  9. Congressional Research Service. "Introduction to U.S. Economy: Fiscal Policy." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  10. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. "Confidence and the Business Cycle." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  11. National Bureau of Economic Research. "Business Cycle Dating Committee, National Bureau of Economic Research, September 20, 2010." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  12. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Unemployment in October 2009." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  13. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.

  14. Bureau of Economic Analysis. "National Data: National Income and Product Accounts: Table 1.1.1. Percent Change From Preceding Period in Real Gross Domestic Product." Accessed Jan. 20, 2020.