The Big Four Recession Indicators

Official recession calls are the responsibility of the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, which is understandably vague about the specific indicators on which they base their decisions. This committee statement is about as close as they get to identifying their method.

There is, however, a general belief that there are four big indicators that the committee weighs heavily in their cycle identification process. We track each of the four at the following individual links:

The Big Four Recession Indicators

The chart and table below illustrate the performance of the generic big four with an overlay of a simple average of the four since the end of the most recent recession (2020). The NBER declared the recent "COVID" recession to be just two months, ending in April 2020. This is the shortest recession on record - here is its announcement on the topic. The data points show the cumulative percent change from a zero starting point for April 2020.

Retail sales bounced back most rapidly, due to pent-up demand and savings by consumers at the start of the pandemic. However, consumer spending has started to level off over the past few years as high interest rates, dwindled savings, and elevated inflation. Industrial production initially showed the second fastest recovery out of the four. Producers and suppliers struggle with limited inventory and continued supply-chain issues. Similar to retail sales, industrial production has started to level off over the past few years. Employment has steadily improved since the official "end of the recession", but employers cannot fill many open positions for a variety of reasons. Real income has shown the weakest recovery but has continued to gradually improve. Income has been an ongoing issue in terms of trends and matching inflation over the years.

Big 4 recession indicators growth since end of 2020 recession

Below is the same percent change chart as above, but shows the performance of the generic big four since the end of the Great Recession. The data points show the cumulative percent change from a zero starting point for June 2009.

Big 4 recession indicators growth since end of 2009 recession

The Big Four Recession Indicators: Background Analysis

The charts above don't really show us the individual behavior of the big four leading up to the 2007 recession. To achieve that goal, I've plotted the same data using a "percent-off-high" technique. In other words, I show successive new highs as zero and the cumulative percent declines of months that aren't new highs. The advantage of this approach is that it helps us visualize declines more clearly and to compare the depth of declines for each indicator and across time (e.g., the short 2001 recession versus the great recession). Here is our four-pack showing the indicators with this technique.

  • Nonfarm employment is currently 0.0% off its all-time high (data through June 2024)
  • Industrial production is currently 0.95% off its all-time high (data through May 2024)
  • Real retail sales are currently 3.84% off its all-time high (data through May 2024)
  • Real personal income is currently 0.00% off its all-time high (data through May 2024)

Big Four Indicators Percent Off Highs in Separate charts

It's difficult to discuss the behavior of the big four leading up to the "COVID" recession - it likely would have occurred regardless of the strength of each of the four. Industrial production had not yet fully recovered from the great recession and was well of its high when COVID "hit". Employment and real income were not terribly far off their highs, and retail sales wavered but had recovered.

Now let's examine the behavior of these indicators across time. The first chart below graphs the period from 2000 to the present, thereby showing us the behavior of the four indicators before and after the two most recent recessions and now. Rather than having four separate charts, we've created an overlay to help us evaluate the relative behavior of the indicators at the cycle peaks and troughs. (See the note below on recession boundaries).

Big Four Recession Indicators Percent Off Highs Overlay since 2000

The chart above is an excellent starting point for evaluating the relevance of the four indicators in the context of three very different recessions. In all instances, the bounce in industrial production and retail sales matches the NBER trough, while employment and personal incomes lagged in their respective reversals.

As for the start of these three 21st century recessions, the indicator declines are less uniform in their behavior. We can see, however, that employment and personal income were laggards in the declines.

Now let's look at the 1972-1985 period, which included three recessions -- the savage 16-month oil embargo recession of 1973-1975 and the double dip of 1980 and 1981-1982 (6-months and 16-months, respectively).

Big Four Recession Indicators Percent Off Highs Overlay 1972-1985

And finally, for sharp-eyed readers who can don't mind squinting at a lot of data, here's a cluttered chart from 1959 to the present. That is the earliest date for which all four indicators are available. The main lesson of this chart is the diverse patterns and volatility across time for these indicators. For example, retail sales and industrial production are far more volatile than employment and income.

Big Four Recession Indicators Percent Off Highs Overlay Since 1959

The Big Four Recession Indicators: Aggregate

The charts above focus on the big four individually, either separately or overlaid. Now let's take a quick look at an aggregate of the four. The next chart is an index created by equally weighting the four and indexing them to 100 for the January 1959 start date. I've used a log scale to give an accurate indication of growth and also added an exponential regression to assist us in seeing the secular patterns of faster and slower growth.

Big Four Recession Indicators Aggregate Since 1959

Now let's plot the percent off high for this aggregate index. As we immediately recognize, it is completely worthless as a leading indicator of recessions. The aggregate index set a new high the month before the recession began for six of the nine recessions since the early 1960s.

Big Four Recession Indicators Aggregate Percent off Highs

We can construct a better leading indicator by plotting the average of the percent off highs for each of the four, which is the technique we've used in the next few charts. Here we've highlighted the months when all four indicators were at all-time highs. The dashed line shows the -0.91% average of the four at recession starts. The average set an all-time high in November of 2014 and was just 0.03% away in November of 2018. The latest average is 1.20% off a new high.

Big Four Recession Indicators Average Percent Off High Since 1959

For a closer look, we've narrowed the time-frame on this next chart.

Average of Big Four Percent Off High Since 2007

A note on recessions: Recessions are represented as the peak month through the month preceding the trough to highlight the recessions in the charts above. For example, the NBER dates the last cycle peak as December 2007, the trough as June 2009 and a duration of 18 months. The "peak through the period preceding the trough" series is the one FRED uses in its monthly charts, as explained in the FRED FAQs illustrated in this Industrial Production chart.

Read more updates by Jen Nash