Recession Gatekeepers: How an Economic Downturn Is Determined

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A recession is a downturn in aggregate economic activity but the precise timing of the period of declining economic activity is not particularly important, Bronars said.

He said most economists are much more concerned about a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth, such as Japan's "Lost Decade," than by a recession.

"Economists understand that capital and labor is reallocated across sectors and industries in a recession. The view is that economic growth should pick up after going through the pain of a recession," Bronars said.

Poor policy decisions that could contribute to an entire decade of low or zero economic growth would ultimately be more damaging than the typical recession, he said.

Frankel said the future state of the economy may depend on whether President Obama's job bill will be passed.

"If they pass the whole thing and if more generally Washington is seen to get its act together on the fiscal situation, it would push down the odds of a recession," he said. "But if there's complete gridlock and nothing is done then the odds are higher."

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