What Is a Double-Dip Recession?

Double-Dip Recessions Explained

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A double-dip recession occurs when an economy enters recovery from a recession but then is derailed and slides back into a recession. While it's rare, it can happen. There have only been two of them since the Great Depression.

Learn what defines a double-dip recession, what causes it, what happens, and how it could impact your finances.

What Is a Double-Dip Recession?

Double-dip recessions occur when there is an economic shock during the early stages of a recovery that follows a recession. The economy is already weakened, leaving it vulnerable to the cycle of reduced spending, rising unemployment, and reduced credit. Therefore, it falls back into recession.

  • Alternate name: W-shaped recession

Double-dip recessions can also be called W-shaped recessions. Each point in the "W" represents the economy at different points: It's high, then low, then on the rise again before dipping a second time. Then, there's an official recovery.

How Do Recessions and Recoveries Work?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession is a "decline in economic activity spread across the economy that lasts more than a few months." Recessions can be triggered by any number of events or economic shocks, including:

  • Runaway inflation, as in the late 1970s in excess of 10%
  • Monetary policy change, such as increasing interest rates and reducing available credit
  • Crisis in the financial system, such as the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008-2009
  • Pandemics

Whatever the reason, consumers lose confidence and reduce spending. Businesses falter, and jobs are lost. Banks extend less credit to businesses and consumers, which further reduces spending and employment, and the misery continues to spread across the economy.

A recovery is the process of returning from a recession to previous levels of economic activity and growth. Conditions become favorable for businesses to begin hiring. Unemployment declines, consumers gain confidence and begin spending, banks resume extending credit, and the recovery (ideally) takes off, leading to an economic expansion.

Note

Recoveries can be slow and gradual. Graphically, they look like a U. Recoveries can also be rapid, looking more like a V. Double-dip recessions are recoveries that look like a W. The return to pre-recession economic activity is interrupted, leading to a decline and then eventually a new recovery.

Double-Dip Recessions Throughout U.S. History

There have only been two double-dip recessions in the last 90 years. The first was in 1937, and the second one was in 1982. Both of them were triggered by changes in monetary policy.

The Double Dip of 1937

The U.S. economy began to recover from the Great Depression in 1933. From 1933 to 1936, unemployment fell from 25% to 14%, and the economy grew at an annual rate of 9%. But in 1936, the Federal Reserve became concerned about potential runaway inflation and systematically reduced the capacity of the banks to provide credit to business and consumers.

At the same time, tax increases from the Revenue Act of 1935 and the social security payroll tax took effect. The veterans' bonus of 1936 (a spending stimulus) was removed. Higher taxes, reduced credit, and reduced spending were enough to interrupt the recovery from the Great Depression.

The end result was a double-dip recession lasting from May 1937 until June 1938. Unemployment rose to 19%, industrial production fell by 32%, and personal income fell by 11%. The subsequent recovery took another two years.

Note

The downturn of 1937 is considered to have been one of the worst of the 20th century.

The Double Dip of 1982

The short recession of January 1980 through July 1980 was brought on by the sharply increased price of oil, as a result of the OPEC embargo, and prolonged high inflation, which peaked at 14.6% in the spring of that year. As the economy began to recover, the Fed dramatically increased interest rates in an effort to bring inflation under control.

Skyrocketing interest rates, peaking at a prime rate of 21.5% in December of 1980, pulled the economy back into a recession, which lasted through most of 1982. Mortgage rates were over 18% in October of 1981, making homeownership virtually impossible for most first-time buyers.

What Does a Double-Dip Recession Mean for Investors?

During both double-dip recessions, the stock market pulled back, dropping 35.34% in 1937, and 4.7% in 1981, both recovering sharply in the following year.

In the past, stocks have done well during periods of expansionary monetary policy when the Fed has used interest rates, open market operations, and reserve requirements to increase economic activity.

Planning for a Double-Dip Recession

The possibility of a double-dip recession is a good reason to review your investment plan if you haven’t already done so. Make sure you are comfortable with your risk levels and allocations to stocks, bonds, and other assets. Are you financially positioned to withstand a market downturn, should one occur?

Examine the companies in your stock, mutual fund, and exchange-traded fund (ETF) portfolio. Are they financially strong? Do your investment strategies need to be adjusted to accommodate a possible downturn?

If you don’t have an investment plan, it's always a good time to build one. Consider getting help from a financial professional to balance the uncertainty of the future with your overall investment goals.

Key Takeaways

  • Double-dip recessions occur when an economy’s recovery from a recession takes a negative turn.
  • Because of the highs and lows, it’s also known as a "W-shaped recession."
  • There have only been two double-dip recessions in the last 90 years.
  • Review your investment portfolio to better weather any potential double-dip recessions or market downturns.