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Are We in a Double-Dip Recession?

December 16, 2020 · 4 minute read

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Are We in a Double-Dip Recession?

The COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing strategies used to curb the virus’ spread plunged the US economy into recession in February 2020, marking the end of the longest bull market in American history. The stock market took a tumble, hitting a low in late March. But since then, amid government stimulus designed to minimize the economic impact of the pandemic, stocks have taken back much of the ground they lost.

Will rising stocks, the easing of social distancing restrictions, and the return of millions of people to work spell a quick end to the recession? Possibly. But it’s also possible that we could be in for a double-dip recession. A double-dip recession is one in which the economy enters recession, with a brief recovery before the economy enters recession for a second time. Here’s a look at what that could mean.

Economic Recessions 101

Generally speaking, a recession is a period of economic decline. It can be accompanied by a rise in unemployment, a loss of consumer confidence, drops in income and spending, increased business failures, and, of course, falling stock markets.

There have been 13 recessions since the end of World War II, including the current recession, which began at the end of February and early March as COVID-19 spread across the United States. The economy began to contract as states issued stay-at-home orders, stores and restaurants closed, and travel nearly ceased.

Recession is a natural part of the economic cycle and, historically speaking, the economy has always recovered.

What Shapes Can Recovery Take?

Recovery from recession can take a few different forms, including V-shaped, U-shaped or the double-dip (W-shaped) recovery.

A V-shaped recovery is the best case scenario in which there is a sharp downturn and then the economy rebounds quickly. If you were to graph this type of downturn and recovery it would look like the letter V.

A U-shaped decline and recovery represents a slow economic growth, in which the economy takes months, if not years to return to pre-recession heights. Imagine taking the graph of a V-shaped recession and spreading the bottom out. The Great Recession of 2007–2009, which lasted for 19 months, is a good example of a U-shaped recession.

A double-dip, or W-shaped recession and recovery occurs when the economy enters recession twice in quick succession. An initial recovery occurs relatively quickly, spurred on by government stimulus. However, a second dip occurs that disrupts the recovery process. This second dip could be spurred on by a number of factors, including the end of monetary and fiscal stimulus, ongoing unemployment, a drop in industrial output, falling GDP, or other economic shocks.

When Was the Last Double-Dip Recession?

The last time a double-dip recession occurred in the US was between 1980 and 1982. The scene was set for the first recession of 1980 by monetary policy of the 1970s. Policymakers believed that they could lower unemployment by controlling inflation. This belief led to what was known as “stop-go” monetary policy, which alternated between fighting high unemployment and high inflation.

When the Fed was in “go” time, it would lower interest rates to free up cash for businesses, which could theoretically start to employ more people. When it was in “stop” mode, the Fed would raise interest rates to try and fight inflation. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work, and unemployment and inflation rose together during the period.

In 1979, Paul Volcker became the chairman of the Fed and helped squash the cycle of inflation and unemployment by raising the interest rate to 20%. Though this move had some benefits, it also aided in the recession of 1980.

The economy recovered relatively quickly heading into 1981. Though GDP rose, unemployment and inflation remained hig. In response, the Fed tightened the monetary supply and the country plunged back into recession in late 1981. Volcker was determined not to back down from his monetary policy despite increasing criticism from Congress and the Treasury Department, saying “We have set our course to restrain growth in money and credit. We mean to stick with it.”

Eventually, the economy recovered after inflation was brought under control and unemployment fell, ushering in a new era of relative economic stability.

Are We Headed for Another Double Dip?

The movements of the market and the economy can be difficult to predict. No one knows for certain how the recovery will shape up. But some experts say that a double-dip recession is possible again. For example, if states reopen too quickly, relaxing social distancing rules, there could be a resurgence of COVID-19 that leads to another government shutdown.

Congress provided trillions of dollars in aid to help prop up the economy through the CARES Act, which offered direct payments to citizens and loans to small businesses to help keep them afloat.

Yet, experts worry that the government could withdraw its economic aid programs too soon, which would leave the recovery too weak to stand on its own.

Other experts believe that while monetary and fiscal stimulus from the federal government may encourage a short-term, V-shaped recovery, such a recovery would not factor in damage to business balance sheets, sales and profitability, which may take longer to show up and for investors to notice the damage.

It’s unclear what would happen should another dip occur. Would Congress be prepared for a second round of bailouts, for example? Do businesses have enough cash to support them through a second dip, or would more businesses fail? Will consumer confidence fall, making it even more difficult for the economy to bounce back?

Preparing for a Double-Dip Recession

While a double-dip recession can be hard to predict, there are things investors can do to make sure they are prepared.

First, it may be prudent that investors have enough saved in an emergency fund. It is recommended to put away at least three to six months worth of expense. This may help ride out difficult financial periods and make it less likely they’ll need to withdraw money from the market while stocks are down.

Second, investors may want to evaluate how diversified their investment portfolios are. Not all investments will perform the same way during a recession. Some may be up, even as others are down. A diversification strategy allows individuals to spread their money out across asset classes—such as stocks and bonds—and sectors to help reduce the risk that poor performance from any given stock will drag their portfolio down.

Finally, talking to a financial advisor can go a long way in helping create a financial plan to help weather the current and future big recessions. SoFi financial planners are available to members—at no additional cost—to advise them according to their individual financial needs.

Visit SoFi Invest® to learn more.


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The information provided is not meant to provide investment or financial advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s specific financial needs, goals and risk profile. SoFi can’t guarantee future financial performance. Advisory services offered through SoFi Wealth, LLC. SoFi Securities, LLC, member FINRA / SIPC . The umbrella term “SoFi Invest” refers to the three investment and trading platforms operated by Social Finance, Inc. and its affiliates (described below). Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of the platforms below.

Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.

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