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In the dynamic world of economics, recessions are inevitable phases that every economy goes through over time. Although recessions are often associated with challenges and uncertainties, they also provide an opportunity to assess and improve the resilience and adaptability of economic systems. This encyclopedia entry aims to provide a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of recession by examining its causes, characteristics and the potential pathways out of such a downturn.

Recession Meaning: What is a recession?

A recession is a phase of economic downturn characterized by a significant decline in economic activity over a prolonged period of time, typically indicated by a decline in gross domestic product (GDP) for two consecutive quarters. This condition manifests itself in a variety of negative developments, such as an increase in unemployment, a decline in consumer spending, a reduction in industrial production and investment, and a general decline in confidence in the economy. Recessions are part of the natural economic cycle and can be triggered by various factors, including financial crises, external shocks, high inflation rates or political uncertainty. Overcoming a recession often requires coordinated economic policy measures to stabilize the economy and lay the foundations for recovery.

Definition of the term: What does the word recession mean?

The word "recession" comes from the Latin "recessio", which means decline or retreat. The term was originally used to describe a general slowdown in the economy and has evolved over time into a technical term in economics that specifically denotes two or more consecutive quarters of negative growth in gross domestic product (GDP). The term thus reflects a period in which the economy "declines" or is in a state of contraction, as opposed to expansion or growth.

Recession Significance for the economy

A recession has far-reaching effects on the economy and the monetary system, which can change the foundations and functioning of the economic ecosystem:

  1. Economic growth: The most obvious characteristic of a recession is the decline in economic growth, measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). This decline signals a reduction in goods and services produced.
  2. Investment: Companies and individuals are often reluctant to invest capital in times of uncertainty. This leads to a decline in investment, which in turn can inhibit the economy's future growth potential.
  3. Interest rates: Central banks may lower interest rates in response to a recession in order to stimulate the economy. Lower interest rates are designed to encourage investment and spending, but can also reduce incentives to save.
  4. Inflation: The impact of a recession on inflation can be mixed. While a slowdown in demand can lead to lower prices (deflation), monetary policy measures to combat the recession can encourage inflationary tendencies in the long term.
  5. Corporate profits and insolvencies: Profits decline as demand falls, which can lead to a higher rate of insolvencies, especially among financially weaker companies.
  6. Labor market: Unemployment rises as companies reduce their workforce due to lower demand and profits.
  7. State finances: On the one hand, government revenues fall due to lower tax receipts. On the other hand, spending on social safety nets often increases, which can increase budget deficits.
  8. Exchange rates: The currency of a country going through a recession can lose value against other currencies, which increases import costs and reduces purchasing power abroad.

A recession therefore affects both the micro and macro levels of the economy, affecting financial conditions, investment activity, government budgetary policy and general living standards. Coping with its effects requires coordinated policy measures to mitigate the negative effects and lay the foundations for recovery.

What types of recession are there?

There are different types of recessions, which can be distinguished according to their cause, duration and the economic conditions that characterize them. Each type of recession has unique causes and requires specific policy and economic measures to mitigate its effects and promote recovery. Here are some of the most common types:

Type of Recession Description
Cyclical recession This occurs when the natural economic cycle goes through a phase of slowdown. Cyclical recessions are part of the normal ups and downs of an economy and are often triggered by a decline in consumer demand and investment.
Structural recession It is caused by profound changes in the structure of the economy, such as technological change or permanent changes in industry. This type of recession can last longer and often requires structural adjustments in the economy.
Shock-induced recession A recession triggered by a sudden, unexpected event, such as a natural disaster, a war or a sharp rise in oil prices. This type of recession can be severe, but recovery can begin as soon as the shock is over.
Financial crisis recession This is triggered by problems in the financial system, such as the collapse of banks, credit crises or stock market crashes. It can be severe, as problems in the financial system often lead to a restriction in lending, which further dampens investment and consumption.
Global recession A global recession occurs when recessionary conditions in several major economies occur simultaneously and reinforce each other. It is often caused by global shocks or the close interdependence of the global economy.
Mild vs. deep recession Recessions can also be classified according to their depth. A mild recession is characterized by a small decline in economic activity and a quick recovery, while a deep recession is characterized by a sharp decline in economic activity and a slow recovery.
L-shaped, V-shaped, U-shaped and W-shaped recessions These terms describe the course of economic recovery after a recession. V-shaped stands for a rapid recovery, U-shaped for a slower recovery, W-shaped for a double-dip recession with an interim recovery and L-shaped for a long period of stagnation.

Causes of a recession

The causes of a recession are varied and often interlinked, with external shocks, internal economic imbalances or a combination of both factors playing a role. The most common causes include:

  • High interest rates: High interest rates can increase borrowing costs for businesses and consumers, which reduces spending and investment and slows economic growth.
  • Financial crises: Collapses in the banking and financial sector can lead to a reduction in lending, which curbs investment and consumption and leads to a recession.
  • Falling consumer demand: A decline in consumer demand caused by factors such as falling incomes, unemployment or loss of consumer confidence can reduce production and economic growth.
  • Falling exports: A global economic slowdown or an appreciation of the domestic currency can reduce exports, which is particularly damaging for export-oriented economies and can lead to a recession.
  • Oil price shocks: Sharp fluctuations in oil prices can have a significant impact on the economy, especially in countries that are heavily dependent on oil imports.
  • Government policy: Fiscal policy decisions, such as tax increases or cuts in government spending, can dampen economic activity and lead to a recession.
  • Technological changes: Rapid technological changes can lead to structural shifts in the economy, which can have disruptive effects in the short term.
  • Overinvestment or speculative bubbles: Excessive investment in certain sectors of the economy, often driven by speculative bubbles, can lead to an uneven distribution of resources. When these bubbles burst, this can lead to sudden economic downturns and recession.
  • Political uncertainty and conflict: Political unrest, war or international conflict can affect investor and consumer confidence and disrupt economic activity, leading to recession.
  • Global pandemics: As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, global health crises can cause widespread disruption to economic activity, from business closures to disruptions to global supply chains.

These causes can occur individually or in combination and trigger or exacerbate a recession. Combating a recession often requires a combination of monetary policy measures by central banks and fiscal policy measures by governments in order to stimulate economic activity and restore confidence.

Is a Recession

Economic stability A recession can undermine a country's economic stability by stifling growth, increasing unemployment and straining government finances.
Living standards The living standards of many people can deteriorate in a recession, as job losses, income declines and increased living costs are common.
Social tensions Increased unemployment and economic uncertainty during a recession can lead to social tensions and an increase in poverty and inequality.
Psychological effects The uncertainty and financial difficulties associated with a recession can lead to an increase in stress, anxiety and other mental health problems.
Business failures A higher rate of business failures can weaken the economy in the long term by reducing the supply of goods and services and limiting innovation.
Long-term economic damage Particularly deep or prolonged recessions can cause lasting damage to a country's economic structure, for example through the loss of skilled labor or reduced investment in research and development.

Whether and how dangerous a recession is depends on its severity, duration and the specific impact on different sectors of the economy and on people's lives. A recession can bring with it the above serious economic and social problems. The severity of a recession also depends on how effectively governments and central banks respond to the crisis. Timely and appropriate fiscal and monetary policy measures can mitigate the severity of a recession and speed up the recovery. Nevertheless, a recession remains a serious challenge that must be carefully managed to minimize its negative impact.

How long does a Recession last?

The duration of a recession can vary greatly and depends on a variety of factors, including the causes of the recession, the effectiveness of the policy measures to combat it and the underlying economic conditions. Historically, recessions have typically lasted from a few months to several years.

The average length of a recession in the United States since World War II is about 11 months, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which dates formal recessions in the United States. However, severe recessions, such as the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, can last much longer and result in a slow and arduous recovery.

It is also important to note that even after the official end of a recession, when economic growth turns positive again, the effects such as high unemployment or reduced incomes can still be felt. The full recovery, defined as the return to pre-recession economic conditions, can therefore take much longer than the recession itself.

The specific duration and course of a recession is determined by a combination of national economic policies, global economic conditions and, in some cases, the resolution of the specific problems that triggered the recession.

Measures against a Recession

Emerging from a recession usually requires a combination of monetary and fiscal policy measures aimed at boosting economic activity, restoring confidence and strengthening economic fundamentals.

Overview of the 4 possible measures against a recession

The following diagram shows a brief overview of the 4 ways to overcome a recession.

Explanation: The Measures against a Recession

It is important to note that the specific measures that need to be taken depend on the cause and depth of the recession, the economic conditions and the financial capacity of the state. A carefully calibrated approach that includes both short-term stimulus and long-term structural improvements is critical to successfully overcoming a recession. Here are some approaches that are frequently used:

Structural Reforms

  • Labor market reforms: Measures to make the labor market more flexible can facilitate job creation and reduce unemployment in a recession.
  • Regulatory reforms: Simplifying business start-ups and governance can encourage innovation and spur new business activity during a recessionary period.
  • Education and apprenticeships: Investing in education and training can improve the adaptability and competitiveness of the workforce.

International Cooperation

  • Trade agreements and cooperation: The promotion of international trade and cooperation with other countries can support exports and growth in a recession.

History of German Recessions

Germany Recession

Early 1980s A recession triggered by the second oil crisis at the end of the 1970s led to a sharp rise in energy prices and inflation. The German economy experienced a significant downturn, characterized by high unemployment and government austerity measures.
Early 1990s A recession followed the reunification of Germany in 1990, partly caused by the enormous costs and economic challenges of integrating the East German economy. This period was characterized by high unemployment and large public budget deficits.
Early 2000s The so-called "dotcom bubble" burst and led to an economic downturn that also affected Germany. This recession was characterized by a decline in investment in the technology sector and general economic uncertainty.
Great Recession 2008/2009 Triggered by the global financial crisis in 2008, Germany experienced a sharp economic downturn. The crisis led to a decline in exports, production cuts and an increase in unemployment, although Germany returned to economic growth relatively quickly compared to other countries.
COVID-19 recession 2020 The global recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic also had a significant impact on Germany. Economic output fell sharply, mainly due to lockdowns and restrictions on public life, which affected production and consumption.

In Germany, as in many other countries, recessions mark periods of economic challenges that can be triggered by different causes and have different effects on the economy and society. Each of these recessions had specific causes and effects, but what they have in common is that they required government intervention in the form of stimulus packages, monetary policy measures and other economic policy adjustments to mitigate the negative effects and support the recovery. Overcoming recessions often requires a balanced interplay of monetary and fiscal policy to stabilize the economy and lay the foundations for future growth.

Recession in the Economic Cycle

A recession is a phase in the economic cycle that describes the natural ups and downs of economic activity over time. The economic cycle comprises four main phases: Expansion, boom (also called boom), recession and recovery.

Overview of the Economic Cycle

The following diagram provides an overview of what an economic cycle looks like.

Explanation: Economic Cycle including Recession

The following 4 phases, including the recession, are part of an economic cycle. Each phase has characteristic features that reflect the general economic situation of a country.


A boom is often followed by a recession, a phase of economic downturn in which economic activity declines. Gross domestic product (GDP) falls, unemployment rises, demand falls and general economic uncertainty increases.


In the recovery phase, the economy begins to grow again, recovering from the recession. Production increases, unemployment begins to fall and confidence in the economy improves, leading to increased spending and investment.

Difference Recession Inflation

The following overview illustrates the fundamental differences between recession and inflation, their causes, main characteristics, effects and the typical political reactions to them.

Aspect Recession Inflation
Definition A phase of economic downturn characterized by a decline in gross domestic product (GDP) over two consecutive quarters. An increase in the general price level of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.
Causes High interest rates, falling demand, financial crises, decline in investment, external shocks. Excess money in circulation, rising production costs, increased demand, currency devaluation.
Main characteristics Falling GDP, rising unemployment, falling consumer demand, reduced investment. Rising prices, falling purchasing power of money, possible wage-price spiral.
Economic effects Lower production and income, increased unemployment, lower corporate profits. Erosion of purchasing power, higher cost of living, distortion of investment incentives.
Political measures Economic stimulus programs, lower interest rates, tax breaks, spending on public projects. Increase in interest rates, tightening of monetary policy, control of the money supply.

More on the subject of Inflation here:


Tip: What to do in a Recession?

As a citizen, there are several strategies you can take to minimize the impact of a recession on your personal financial life and possibly even put yourself in a better position for the post-recession period. Here are some measures:

  • Minimize debt: Try to reduce or consolidate high-interest debt, especially credit card debt, during a recession. This can lower your monthly payments and increase your financial flexibility.
  • Rethink investment strategy: During a recession, certain asset classes such as stocks can be volatile. A well-diversified investment strategy that matches your risk profile and long-term goals is important.
  • Maintain a network: A strong professional network can be invaluable during a recession for finding new job opportunities or getting support when starting a business.
  • Long-term planning: Keep a long-term perspective when making financial decisions. Recessions are part of the normal economic cycle and often offer investment opportunities at lower prices.

These measures can not only help to mitigate the effects of a recession, but also improve your financial resilience and preparedness for future economic fluctuations.

Key Questions about the Recession Answered in Brief

What is the difference between Recession and Inflation?

Recession and inflation are two different economic phenomena. A recession is a period of economic slowdown in which gross domestic product (GDP) shrinks over two consecutive quarters, often leading to a decline in demand, production and consumption. Inflation, on the other hand, refers to an increase in the general price level over a certain period of time, which leads to a decrease in the purchasing power of the currency. While a recession is characterized by falling economic output, inflation is characterized by rising prices. Both phenomena can occur simultaneously, but their causes and effects on the economy and society are different.

What is worse Inflation or Recession?

Whether inflation or recession is worse depends on the specific circumstances and impact it has on an economy and society. Inflation leads to a loss of purchasing power, which can be particularly damaging for people on fixed incomes. High inflation can also lead to uncertainty in the markets and discourage long-term investment. Recessions, on the other hand, lead to a decline in economic activity, which can increase unemployment and business insolvencies. The negative impact on people's well-being and financial security can be significant. Both phenomena pose serious challenges and their assessment often depends on the people affected, the underlying causes and the ability of policy makers to respond effectively.

What happens in the event of Recession and Inflation?

In a recession, there is a decline in economic activity, which often leads to an increase in unemployment, a fall in company profits and a reduction in consumer spending. Investment may fall as companies and households are uncertain about the future. The government may try to counteract this through stimulus programs or interest rate cuts.

Inflation, on the other hand, leads to an increase in the price level of goods and services, which reduces the purchasing power of the currency. This means that less can be bought for the same amount of money. For consumers, this can mean that their cost of living increases, while savings can lose value. Companies could experience rising production costs, which in turn leads to higher sales prices. The central bank can respond to high inflation by raising interest rates to dampen demand and slow price growth.

What is the link between Recession and Inflation?

Recession and inflation are linked, as the measures taken to combat one phenomenon often influence the other. For example, a central bank may lower interest rates to counteract a recession, which stimulates the economy, but also increases the potential for inflation, as higher demand for goods and services can cause prices to rise. Conversely, a central bank may raise interest rates to combat inflation, but this can dampen growth and trigger or deepen a recession. In some cases, countries can also experience stagflation, a situation in which high inflation and a stagnant economy occur simultaneously, making economic policy particularly challenging. Finding the balance between these two phenomena is a complex task for economic policymakers.

What is the opposite of Recession?

The opposite of recession is economic expansion or growth. In this phase, the economy expands, characterized by a rise in gross domestic product (GDP), an increase in production and consumption, a falling unemployment rate and often also rising corporate profits. During an expansion, consumer confidence usually improves, leading to increased spending and investment. This phase is part of the economic cycle, which includes recessions, and reflects periods when economic activity is increasing and the economy as a whole is thriving.

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