What Is the Ideal GDP Growth Rate?

How Fast Should the US Economy Grow?

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A healthy gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate sustains the economy in the expansion phase of the business cycle for as long as possible. GDP is the total market value of the goods and services produced within a country in a year.

The GDP growth rate is how much more the economy produced than in the previous quarter. The current GDP growth rate is 6.7% for the second quarter of 2021, according to the second-quarter third estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

This is the fourth consecutive quarter of economic growth after a two-quarter economic slump related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Healthy Rate of Growth Is 2% to 3%

In a healthy economy, growth, unemployment, and inflation are in balance. Most economists agree the ideal GDP growth rate is between 2% and 3%.

Many politicians think more growth is always better. But a healthy GDP growth rate is like a body temperature of 98.6 degrees. If your temperature is lower than the ideal, you know you're sick. If it's too low, you may be near death. A higher temperature can also mean you're sick. If it's over 100 degrees, you have a fever. If it's above 104 degrees for any period, you may be seriously ill.

If the economy grows too slowly or even contracts, it's not healthy. On the other hand, if it grows too fast, it's not ideal either.

If GDP growth starts spiking above 4% for several years, as it did between 1996 and 1999, it means there might be an asset bubble forming. When the economy grows too fast, it begins to overheat. An overheating economy is unsustainable because it can't meet the demands of consumers, businesses, and the government.

The natural unemployment rate falls. Prices for everything from toilet paper to stocks go up. The economy quickly begins to contract. A recession becomes likely unless action is taken to bring everything back to a slowly increasing growth rate.

The Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank, uses monetary policy to influence inflation and economic activity.

The Fed raises the federal funds rate target range to raise interest rates if the economy expands too fast and lowers it if it's contracting. It also increases or reduces the supply of money the help adjust growth. Using these and other monetary policy tools, it tries to keep an inflation rate of 2% over the longer run. This helps to manage GDP growth at the same time—if inflation rises too quickly, consumers spend more because their money will be worth less in the future.

The following chart visualizes the difference between a healthy growth rate and rates that are too high or too low. It features quarterly statistics from 1995 to 2021, showing how recessions followed dangerously high growth rates. The exception was the recession in 2020, which was caused by a pandemic.

Historical GDP Growth Rates

In 1999, GDP growth reached 5.4% in the third quarter and peaked at 6.7% in the fourth quarter. During 1999 and 2000, U.S. inflation was between 2.2% and 3.4%. While these rates are ideal according to the Federal Reserve, the Fed didn't start targeting long-term inflation until 2012.

In between the 2001 recession and the 2008 recession, the annual economic growth rate was healthy:

  • 2003: 2.8%
  • 2004: 3.9%
  • 2005: 3.5%
  • 2006: 2.8%
  • 2007: 2.0%

Between 2003 and 2005, inflation was between 2.3% and 3.4%. The economy grew 4.5% in the first quarter of 2005 and 5.5% in the first quarter of 2006. By the end of 2006, an asset bubble began to grow in the housing market.

Once a bubble bursts, the economy enters the contraction phase of the business cycle.

In an economic contraction, GDP growth tends to decline and go into negative territory. This can indicate that the economy is in trouble—if the shrinkage continues for more than two quarters in a row, it indicates a recession might be brewing.

During the 2008 recession, GDP growth rates were abysmal. The troubles in housing had spread to the investors in mortgage-backed securities, as the financial crisis infected the rest of the economy:

  • Q1 2008: -1.6%
  • Q2 2008: 2.3%
  • Q3 2008: -2.1%
  • Q4 2008: -8.5%

In March 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) spurred the economy back into health. The first two quarters of 2009 were still negative before the Act began to affect the economy. Growth rates returned to positive territory in the third quarter:

  • Q1 2009: -4.6%
  • Q2 2009: -0.7%
  • Q3 2009: 1.5%
  • Q4 2009: 4.3%

Growth rates in each quarter of 2010 remained positive, between 2.0% and 3.9%. In 2011, the economy contracted in the first and third quarters. High foreclosures from the subprime mortgage crisis were preventing the housing market from recovering.

Is the Current Economy Healthy?

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recession in 2020 caused GDP to contract -31.2% in the second quarter of 2020—worse than any year during the Great Depression. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) labeled it as a recession—as such, it is the shortest ever recorded. The NBER also announced the recession officially over in April 2020.

GDP growth is one of the most used metrics by economists to decide whether a country is operating healthily or not, but it is only one of the many metrics used to gauge a healthy economy. If only GDP and its growth are considered, then the economy is doing well if they are positive or only negative for a short time.

However, economists consider other metrics for a full view of the economy. Some of these are the unemployment rate, consumer price index, the purchasing manager's index, and gross national product.

Here are the quarterly growth rates for 2021 and the previous five years:

 2021 Growth Rate  Event 
Q1 6.3% Recovery continues, Delta variant spreads
Q2  6.7%  GDP continues to rise, Delta variant spreads

2020 GDP Growth Rates

2020 Growth Rate Event
Q1 -5.1% The government shut down the economy in March
Q2 -31.2% Shutdowns continued
Q3 33.8% Recovery began as businesses reopened
Q4 4.5% Recovery slowed as COVID-19 infections increased and some businesses closed again
Annual 2020 -3.4% Recession

2019 GDP Growth Rates

2019 Growth Rate Event
Q1 2.4% Exports rose while imports fell
Q2 3.2% Exports fell
Q3 2.8% Commercial equipment fell
Q4 1.9% Business spending fell
Annual 2019 2.3% Healthy

2018 GDP Growth Rates

2018  Growth Rate Event
Q1 3.1% Boost in commercial construction
Q2 3.4% Shippers accelerated exports to avoid a trade war
Q3 1.9% Exports fell due to trade war
Q4 0.9% Consumer spending slowed
Annual 2018 2.9% Healthy

2017 GDP Growth Rates

2017 Growth Rate Event
Q1 1.9% Government spending fell
Q2 2.3% Modest consumer spending
Q3 2.9% Strong spending on durable goods
Q4 3.8% Continued durable goods spending
Annual 2017 2.3% Healthy

2016 GDP Growth Rates

2016 Growth Rate Event
Q1 2.4% Stock market fell, reducing business investment
Q2 1.2% Home construction slowed
Q3 2.4% Auto sales, commercial construction grew
Q4 2.0% Consumer spending not enough to offset slowing exports
Annual 2016 1.7% Slow

2015 GDP Growth Rates

2015 Growth Rate Event
Q1 3.3% Strong housing construction
Q2 2.3% Durable goods spending
Q3 1.3% Strong dollar slowed exports
Q4 0.6% Commercial construction fell
Annual 2015 2.7% Very healthy

Key Takeaways

  • The ideal GDP growth rate is between 2% and 3%.
  • The current quarterly GDP rate is 6.7% for the second quarter of 2021, which means the economy grew by that much between April and June 2021.
  • The growth signals continued expansion if the trend continues.
  • The GDP growth rate measures how healthy the economy is.