What Will the Next Recovery Look Like?

Earlier this morning, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its US 2nd quarter GDP figures and the news…isn’t great. On an annualised basis, we saw -32.9% growth. That’s pretty bad. Like Great Depression level bad. I’ve posted on the social media how bad this current recession is and how nobody in the workforce today worked or didn’t through the Great Depression to really relate to the numbers we are seeing.

But that’s all today. The sun will come out tomorrow. (And scorch the Earth as climate change renders certain parts of the globe uninhabitable to mankind. But we’ll get to those posts in later weeks.) And when it does come out, eventually, what will the recovery look like? I’ve seen a few mentions recently in the media of a V-shaped recovery. What is this mysterious V-shape?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away. Or during the last recession in Chicago, I worked with some really smart people in some of my professional projects and we covered the exact same question. There are a couple key “shapes” to an economic recovery. And when we say recovery, we mean just to return to pre-recession peak levels of growth. Anything above that is an expansion. That’s what we want to get back to.

What kind of shape will the recovery take?
Who knew typographers loved economics?

The V-shape we hear a lot about is a sharp recovery after the economy bottoms out (the trough). Broadly speaking, if a recession has to last two consecutive quarters (it doesn’t, but that’s a pretty common definition so let’s stick with it), then in a V-shape, we are talking about a recovery one or two quarters later.

Similar to the V is the W-shape, where things start to improve rapidly, but some kind of shock to the economic system and things go back negative once again before finally picking up quickly. It’s not hard to imagine something going horribly wrong with the Covid-19 pandemic to be just that external shock that could push the economy back down again.

Similar still is the U-shape. Here, after hitting rock bottom, growth isn’t quite as quick to pick up as we linger in the depths of the valley of recession. But after a bit of time, we again see a rapid recovery to pre-recession levels of growth.

These are all pretty short term recoveries, the W being a little bit longer because two sharp downturns. But they are nothing compared to what’s also possible.

First we have the L-shape. Here, after hitting bottom, things start to recover quickly. But that recovery is slow and takes a long time. Growth remains slower than average, creeping up to average, and then still takes its time to reach pre-recession levels. Is something like this possible? Well, if vaccines fail and if some countries still can’t get their act together (cough, US, cough), the willingness of consumers to go out, eat, drink, buy things, travel, and generally make merry could be suppressed for a long time. So it’s certainly not out of the question.

And then lastly we have the UUUU-shape. Though you could probably add or subtract a U or two. This features more drawn out stays at the bottom of the valley with quick and sharp upticks in growth. But those growths, never reaching pre-recession levels, also collapse quickly back into declines, though also never really reaching the same depths as earlier. Essentially, the recovery faces multiple setbacks knocking the economy back down as it sputters to life. As with the L-shape, it’s also not hard to imagine a world where a country hasn’t managed to contain its outbreak struggling to get back on its feet.

What do you think? Are we at rock bottom? Did I miss a recovery type?

Credit for the graphic is mine.

Author: Brendan Barry

I am a graphic designer who focuses on information design. My day job? I am the data visualisation manager for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (This blog is my something I do on my own time and does not represent the views of the Fed, blah blah blah legal stuff.) And with my main interest in information design—be it in the shape of clear charts, maps, diagrams, or wayfinding systems—I am fortunate that my day job focuses on data visualisation. Outside of work, I try to stay busy with personal design work. Away from the world of design, I enjoy cooking and reading and am interested in various subjects from history and geography to politics to science to the arts. And I allow all of them to influence my work.

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