The claim that Australia has gone 28 years without a recession since the early 1990s recession ended in 1991 has been subject to some criticism in recent times with the economy sliding into a “per capita recession” where economic growth has been below population growth. Some have latched on to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis analysis that noted the 28 year claim should be “taken with a grain of salt” because “Australia has had three recessions since 1991 when looking at GDP per capita, the most recent one being from the second quarter of 2018 to the first quarter of 2019.”
GDP per capita
It’s true that Australia’s relatively strong population growth helps grow the economy. And in terms of living standards it’s GDP per person or per capita that really matters and the recent slowdown in GDP growth to 1.4% year on year which is below 1.6% population growth is a big concern. I even wrote a note after the release of the December quarter GDP data entitled “Australia enters a per capita recession” (which can be found here). But it does not measure up as a conventional recession.
The conventional definition of recession is two or more consecutive quarters of falling real GDP.
Source: ABS, AMP CapitalOn this basis Australia’s last recession ended back in 1991, ie 28 years ago.
However, if GDP per capita is looked at then Australia has had three per capita recessions since 1991 using the two or more consecutive quarters of decline approach – in the September and December quarters of 2000, the March and June quarters of 2006 and the September and December quarters of 2018. There was also a per capita recession in 1985-86.
* Because there were two periods of consecutive quarterly declines in per capita GDP in each of the 1981-83 and 1990-1991 periods broken by one quarterly rise the Fed Reserve Bank of St Louis note ascribes two per capita recessions in each period although for all intents and purposes they were really each just one big recession. Source: ABS
Wider definitions of recession
Nor would the per capita recessions of 1985-86, 2000, 2006 and 2018 comply with wider definitions of recession such as that of the US National Bureau of Economic Research that defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.
Source: ABS, AMP Capital
Only the per capita recessions of 1981-83 and 1990-91 which were also conventional recessions saw a significant slump in employment (both of around 4%) and sharp rises in unemployment (with both seeing around a 5 percentage point rise). The other per capita recessions saw very little or no fall in employment and only small or no rises in unemployment. In fact, through the last per capita recession of 2006 jobs growth remained solid and unemployment fell, which makes a non-sense of calling it a recession particularly given it was in the midst of the mining boom! The recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s were horrendous events in terms of mass job losses, corporate collapses and financial failures. The per capita recessions of 2000, 2006 and more recently do not compare.
Which brings us to the smell test. For Australians like myself who lived through the early 1980s and early 1990s recessions it’s doubtful that they would recall the per capita recessions of 1985-86, 2000 or 2006 as real recessions. Which is why they are often just referred to as slowdowns. The 2000 slowdown occurred because of the pull forward of spending due to the start up of the GST and also the end of the Olympics and the 2006 per capita recession can hardly be seen as a recession given it was in one of the biggest booms in Australian history, ie the mining boom. And a common question in relation to the recent episode is “things aren’t that bad, so why is the RBA cutting?” (The answer being that waiting for a real recession is likely leaving it too late.)
Consistent with this, consumer and business confidence was bouncing around average levels in 2000, 2006 and more recently in contrast to the slump of the early 1990s.
Fair enough but it’s a garbage in, garbage out kind of argument. The only point in highlighting the three per capita recessions is to show that Australian living standards are falling. That it is happening in slow motion may be relative comfort but it is hardly good and the longer it goes the less relatively comforting it is. There is no end in sight.
When you broaden the conversation you have to look beyond the above conventional measures of recessions and living standards to more precise measures such as underemployment which is near record highs:
And is at record highs for youth:
And income growth which has fallen for nearly a decade:
What good is life without recessions if it comes at the price of getting worse in slow motion, Shano? This only serves the interests of few billionaires and pollies.
And it is ALL about population growth.