GDP-Based Recession Indicator Index

James D. Hamilton*

(Updated May 11, 2016)

The GDP-based recession indicator index rose a bit on the basis of the weak GDP reports for 2015:Q4 and 2016:Q1, and currently stands at 15.7 percent. Though economic growth has been weaker than in a typical expansion, the inference is that the U.S. economy is nevertheless still clearly in the expansion phase. A paper by Marcelle Chauvet and James Hamilton (from Nonlinear Time Series Analysis of Business Cycles, 2006, edited by Costas Milas, Philip Rothman, and Dick van Dijk) concluded that the U.S. could be said to have entered a recession when the index rises above 67 percent.

GDP-Based Recession Indicator Index

GDP-Based Recession Indicator Index - May 2016
The plotted value for each date is based solely on information as it would have been publicly available and reported as of one quarter after the indicated date, with 2015:Q4 the last date shown on the graph. Shaded regions represent dates of NBER recessions, which were not used in any way in constructing the index, and which were sometimes not reported until two years after the date.

The index is a pattern-recognition algorithm that assigns dates to when recessions begin and end based on the observed dynamics of U.S. real GDP growth. To make a reliable inference, it is necessary to wait one quarter for data to be revised and confirm the current trend. Thus with the 2016:Q1 advance GDP numbers released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on April 28, 2016, a value of the recession indicator index describing economic conditions for the fourth quarter of 2015 can be calculated. To maximize usefulness as a real-time indicator, the index is not subsequently revised. The index ranges from 0 to 100, with a value above 50 indicating the data are more consistent with a recession than expansion.

Based on the recession indicator index, the Great Recession was determined to have begun in 2007:Q4 and ended in 2009:Q2. These start and end dates for the recession are the same as were announced separately by the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, though NBER did not issue its end-date declaration until September of 2010. The current reading of the index indicates that the expansion is still continuing.

For more details about the method, see Chauvet and Hamilton's paper or the less technical description by Hamilton. You can also download a spreadsheet containing historical values of the index.

*James Hamilton is a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego.