Business Cycle

views updated May 14 2018


A business cycle refers to the ups and downs of the general level of economic activity for a country. Such changes are normally visible in key macroeconomic measures such as gross domestic product (GDP), real income, employment, industrial output, and wholesale-retail sales. The upward movement in economic activity is referred to as the expansion phase and the downward movement as the contraction phase of the cycle. The turning points of the cycle are called the peak, which is at the end of the expansion phase, and the trough, which is at the end of the contraction phase.

Much attention is paid to the timing of these turning points and the duration of the phases. The expansion phase of the business cycle starts with a short period of recovery before becoming a full-blown expansion. Similarly, a period of recession occurs at the start of the contraction phase. Thus the cycle is generally referred to as

Business cycle expansions and contractions
Business cycle reference datesDuration in months
TroughPeakContraction (trough from previous peak)Expansion (trough to peak)Cycle
Trough from previous troughPeak from previous peak
1 31 cycles
2 15 cycles
3 26 cycles
4 13 cycles
1) Figures printed in bold italic are the wartime expansions (Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korean war and Vietnam war), the postwar contractors, and the full cycles that induce the wartime expansions.
2) The determination that the last contraction ended in November 2001 is the most recent decision of the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
source: National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02133.
December 1854June 185730
December 1858October 186018224840
June 1861April 1865846 3054
December 1867June 186932 1878 50
December 1870October 187318343652
March 1879March 1882653699101
May 1885March 188738227460
April 1888July 189013273540
May 1891January 189310203730
June 1894December 189517183735
June 1897June 189918243642
December 1900September 190218214239
August 1904May 190723334456
June 1908January 191013194632
January 1912January 191324124336
December 1914August 19182344 3567
March 1919January 19207 1051 17
July 1921May 192318222840
July 1924October 192614273641
November 1927August 192913214034
March 1933May 193743506493
June 1938February 19451380 6393
October 1945November 19488 3788 45
October 1949July 19531145 4856
May 1954August 195710 3955 49
April 1958April 19608244732
February 1961December 196910106 34116
November 1970November 197311 36117 47
March 1975January 198016585274
July 1980July 19816126418
November 1982July 1990169228108
March 1991March 20018120100128
November 20018
Average, all cycles:
18542001 (32 cycles)173855156
18541919 (16 cycles)222748249
19191945 (6 cycles)18355353
19452001 (10 cycles)10576767
Average, peacetime cycles:
18542001 (27 cycles)183351352
19541919 (14 cycles)222446447
19191945 (5 cycles)20264645
19452001 (8 cycles)10526363

consisting of four phases: recovery, expansion, recession, and contraction.


The transition from phase to phase is described in terms of the rate of growth of the economy. During the recovery phase, the economy turns into a positive growth period with an increasing rate of growth. During the expansion period, the economy continues to grow, but gradually at a decreasing rate. After the peak is reached, the rate of growth will turn negative, causing the economic activity to decline and the economy to slip into recession. The recession phase is marked by a rapidly declining economy from its peak. The rate of decline slows down as the cycle approaches its trough and the economy passes through the contraction phase. A severe contraction is referred to as a depression, the type that occurred in 1930s. During the Great Depression, the output fell by almost 50 percent and employment by 22 percent. All the recessions since then have been shorter in duration and less severe.


The time taken to complete a cycle can vary from cycle to cycle, with the time usually measured from peak to peak or trough to trough. Considerable variability of the duration of business cycles has been observed in the past. Between 1854 and 1982, there were 30 business cycles with an average length from trough to trough of 46 months and standard deviation of 16 months. The average length of the expansion in these cycles was 27 months with a standard deviation of 11 months, and the average contraction was 19 months with a standard deviation of 13. Though they varied greatly in duration and scope, all of them had some common features. They were national or international in scope; they affected output, employment, retail sales, construction, and other macroeconomic variables; and they lasted for years, with upward movement longer than downward movement.


It is sometimes useful to speak of the cycles of specific time series; that is, the interest rate cycle, the inventory cycle, the construction cycle, and so forth. Given the diversity of general economic cycles, one can find turns in the general level of economic activity in which individual sectors of the economy do, at least for a time, appear to be independent of the rest of the economy. The most frequently mentioned individual cycles are the inventory cycle, the building or construction cycle, and the agricultural cycle. The standard business cycle is sometimes referred to as the inventory cycle, and some business cycle theorists explain the severity of turns in the economy by the coincidence of timing in the individual cycles.


The idea of the timing of individual time series relative to the general level of business implies specific dates for the business cycle. How does one establish the peaks and troughs for the business cycle? To say whether something leads or lags the business cycle, one must have some frame of reference; hence, the business cycle is referred to as the reference cycle and its peaks and troughs as reference turning points. (See Table 1.)

For the United States, the reference turning points are established by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonprofit research organization. This organization, originally under the guidance of Wesley Clair Mitchell (18741948), pioneered business cycle research in the late 1920s. In the early twenty-first century the NBER's decisions regarding the reference cycle are often viewed as infallible, although they are actually quite subjective. No single time series or group of time series is decreed to be "the" reference cycle. A committee of professional business cycle analysts convened by the NBER establishes the official peaks and troughs in accordance with the following definition:

Business cycles are a type of fluctuation found in the aggregate economic activity of nations that organize their work mainly in business enterprises: a cycle consists of expansions occurring at about the same time in many economic activities, followed by similarly general recessions, contractions, and revivals which merge in the expansion phase of the next cycle; this sequence of changes is recurrent but not periodic; in duration business cycles vary from more than one year to ten or twelve years; they are not divisible into shorter cycles of similar character with amplitudes approximately their own. (Burns and Mitchell, 1946, p. 3)

With slight modification, this definition has been used since 1927. Although most of the definition is self-explanatory, it is not all that rigorous. It does not say something like, for example, if the total output of the economy (real GDP) falls at an annual rate of 1 percent for two consecutive quarters, a recession has begun. The definition does say unambiguously that business cycles are "recurrent but not periodic." The only real constraint in the definition is that if a business cycle is defined as, say, from peak to peak, one should not be able to find another cycle of equal amplitude between those two peaks. If so, one did it wrong.

The NBER's business cycle dating committee follows standard procedures by using economy-wide measures of economic activity. The primary measure it looks at is the real GDP, which it considers to be the single best measure of aggregate economic activity. It also looks at other measures such as real personal-transfer payments, employment, and industrial production. According to the dating committee, the decline of real GDP for two or more consecutive quarters is the criterion for determining the beginning of a recession. Table 1 provides the NBER's chronology of U.S. business cycles since 1854.

The most recent turning point identified by the NBER was November 2001, marking the end of the recession that started in March 2001 and inaugurating an expansion. As of December 2005, the U.S. economy continued to expand. The expansion that began in March 1991 and ended in March 2001, lasting exactly ten years, was the longest in the NBER's chronology. Notice from the table that all that is established with regard to "the" business cycle is the peak and trough of each cycle. This determination tells readers absolutely nothing about the rate of rise or fall in the general level of economic activity, nothing about the magnitude of the boom or the severity of the recession.


The first lecture in an introductory economics course usually makes the point that the expenditures of one economic unit are the incomes of other economic units. This provides a fairly firm basis for expecting sympathetic movements in many sectors of the economy. A good theoretical basis and substantial empirical support exist for cumulative upward and downward movement in the economy. One sector's expansion is the basis for another sector's expansion, general prosperity lowers risk and makes credit more readily available, and so on; but the weakest part of business cycle theory and the toughest problem in forecasting is turning points. Why does the general upward or downward movement end? Sometimes it is obvious. When, for example, a war begins or ends with a commensurate and dramatic change in military expenditures, the cause of the beginning or end of an economic boom is fairly unambiguous.

Historically, however, only a small minority of the turning points are the result of specific, identifiable events such as wars, changes in population, and advances in technology. Even when exogenous events initiate a business cycle, what generates cumulative up-and-down movements in the economy is the internal mechanism of the economy responding to the external stimuli. A satisfactory theory of business cycle, therefore, must explain how cyclical movements are generated by the internal mechanism of the economy when affected by outside shocks. Many theories have been advanced over the years to explain these cumulative up-and-down movements.

One set of theories developed around the turn of the twentieth century focused on such factors as innovations, variations in funds flow, and overinvestment as the initiating causes of cyclical movements in the economy. Internal dynamics of the economy also played a key role in the various phases of the cycle in these theories. Theories developed during the interwar and immediate postwar period focused more on internal instability to explain how cyclical fluctuations in economic activity are created and sustained.

In 1917 an eminent American economist, J. M. Clark (18841963), published an article titled "Business Acceleration and the Law of Demand: A Technical Factor in Economic Cycles." His technical factor was the observation that with a fixed capital-output ratio, a small percentage change in final sales would give rise to a large percentage change in investment. Each innovation generates a temporary demand for the required investment goods. Once the initial investment has been made, the replacement market requires a lower rate of investment. This is referred to as the principle of acceleration. If it takes $10 worth of steel mills to produce $1 worth of steel per year, growth in demand for steel by $1 will temporarily generate $10 worth of demand for steel mills.

Another early business cycle theorist, Joseph Schumpeter (18831950), noted that nothing is constant over the business cycle and nothing ever really returns to its starting place. That is what makes each business cycle unique. The economy grows and changes with each cyclenew products, new firms, new consumers. As Schumpeter observed in 1939, "As a matter of history, it is to physiology and zoology, not to mechanics, that our science is indebted for an analogous distinction which is at the threshold of all clear thinking about economic matters" (p. 37). The economy grows and changes. He referred to this as the process of "creative destruction."

Schumpeter concluded that what most people consider "progress" is at the source of the problem. He believed that as entrepreneurs come up with new ways of doing things, this disturbs the equilibrium and creates fluctuations. Schumpeter distinguished between inventions, which may gather dust for years, and innovations, which are commercial applications of previous inventions. Inventions occur randomly through time. Innovations tend to be bunched, thereby creating cycles of economic activity.

Many business cycle theorists give a prominent role to the monetary system and interest rates. Early in the twentieth century, a Swedish economist, Knut Wicksell (18511926), argued that if the "natural" rate of interest rose above the "bank" rate of interest, the level of economic activity would begin to increase. In contemporary terms, the natural rate of interest is what businesses expect to earn on real investment. The bank rate is the return on financial assets in general and commercial bank loans in particular. The boom begins when, for whatever reason, the cost of borrowing falls significantly below expected returns on investment. This difference between the rate of return on real and financial assets generates a demand for bank loans by investors seeking to exploit the opportunity for profit. The economy booms.

At some point the bank rate will start to rise and/or the real rate will start to fall. When the expected rate of return on investment falls below the rate at which funds can be borrowed, the process will begin to reverse itself and the recession is on. As bank loans are paid off (or defaulted on), bank credit is reduced, and the economy slows accordingly.

Since the late twentieth century, business cycle theory has centered on the argument about the source of cyclical instability. The question of the root causes of ups and downs in the level of economic activity received a lot of attention in the 1980s and 1990s.

Figure 1 shows how the parties to the debate are divided up. First, there is the question of whether the private sector of the economy is inherently stable or unstablewhich is to say, do the observed fluctuations originate in the government or private sector? On one side are what might be called classical economists, who are convinced that the economy is inherently stable. They contend that, historically, government policy has destabilized it in a perverse fashion. On the other side are what might be called Keynesians, named after the British economist John Maynard Keynes (18831946). Keynesians believe that psychological shifts in consumers' purchasing and savings preferences and in businesses' confidence are a substantial source of instability.

There is a whole body of literature on political business cycles. As economist William D. Nordhaus noted: "The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power" (1989, p. 1). The idea is that politicians in power will tend to follow policies to promote short-term prosperity around election time and allow recessions to occur at other times. The evidence that the state of the economy influences voting patterns is strong, as is the apparent desire of incumbent politicians to influence the economy; but it is difficult to make a case that the overwhelming determinant of the level and timing of business fluctuations is politically determined. At some points in modern history, politically determined policies were apparently a determining factor and at other times not.

With respect to the impact of governmental policies, there is a dispute as to the relative importance of monetary policy (controlling the money supply) and fiscal policy (government expenditures and taxes). Those who believe that monetary policies have had a generally destabilizing effect on the economy are known as monetarists. Most economists accept that fiscal policy, especially in wartime, has been a source of cyclical instability.

As noted above, it is the so-called Keynesian economists who believe that the private sector is inherently unstable. While noting the historical instability of investment in tangible assets, they have also emphasized shifts in liquidity preference (demand for money) as an independent source of instability. As a counter to the standard Keynesian position, there has arisen a school of thought emphasizing real business cycles. This school contends that nonmonetary variables in the private sector are a

major source of cyclical instability and that the observed sympathetic movements between monetary variables and the level of economic activity result from a flow of causation from the latter to the former. The changes in real factors cause the monetary factors to change, not vice versa. In this way they are somewhat like Wicksell.


Changes in the magnitudes of certain economic series provide clues to the direction of changes in the cyclical behavior of economy. These series are identified, measured, and used for forecasting the turning points of the business cycle. Called economic indictors, they are divided into three groupsleading, lagging, and roughly coincidental. The leading indicators are those economic series that change direction in advance of the business cycle. The lagging indicators change direction after the overall economy has moved, while coincident indicators move in tandem with the aggregate economic activity. Basic economic indicators consist of 10 leading, 7 lagging, and 4 coincident series.

In order to smooth out the volatility of individual series in each group and to provide a single measure to represent the entire group, a composite index for each group (composite indicator) is constructed. The measures of basic indicators and the composites are calculated and published by the Conference Board, a not-for-profit organization.

see also Economics


Achuthan, Lakshman, and Banerji, Anirvan (2004). Beating the business cycle. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Blanchard, Olivier (2000). What do we know about macroeconomics that Fisher and Wicksell did not? (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. W7550). New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Burns, Arthur, and Mitchell, Wesley C. (1946). Measuring business cycles. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Clark, J. M. (1917). Business acceleration and the law of demand: A technical factor in economic cycles. Journal of Political Economy, 25, 217235.

Conference Board. (2001). Business cycle indicators handbook. New York: Author.

Hicks, J. R. (1958). The trade cycle. London: Oxford University Press.

King, Robert, and Plosser, Charles (1984). Money, credit and prices in a real business cycle. American Economic Review, 74 (3), 363380.

King, Robert, and Rebelo, Sergio (2000). Resuscitating real business cycles (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. W7534). New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Long, John B., Jr., and Plosser, Charles I. (1983). Real business cycles. Journal of Political Economy, 91 (1) 3969.

Lucas, Robert E. (1981). Studies in business cycle theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lucas, Robert E., and Sargent, Thomas J. (Eds.) (1981). Rational expectations and econometric practice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mankiw, N. Gregory (1989). Real business cycles: A new Keynesian perspective. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3 (3), 7990.

Mitchell, Wesley Clair (1952). The economic scientist. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nordhaus, William D. (1989). Alternative approaches to the political business cycle. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2, 150.

Rotemberg, Julio J., and Woodford, Michael (1996). Realbusiness-cycle models and the forecastable movements in output, hours, and consumption. The American Economic Review, 86 (1), 7189.

Schumpeter, Joseph (1939). Business cycles. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schumpeter, Joseph (1961). The theory of economic development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wicksell, Knut (1901). Lectures on political economy. New York: Augustus M. Kelly.

Willet, Thomas D. (Ed.) (1988). Political business cycles: The political economy of money, inflation, and unemployment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Zarnowitz, Victor (1985). Recent work on business cycles in historical perspective: A review of theories and evidence. Journal of Economic Literature, 23 (2), 523580.

Zarnowitz, Victor (1996). Business cycles, theory, history, indicators, and forecasting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anand Shetty

David A. Bowers

Business Cycle

views updated Jun 11 2018

Business Cycle

What It Means

The U.S. economy has grown tremendously since the eighteenth century. This growth has not, however, been a constant march toward higher levels of production and income; rather, it has been cyclical. Periods of economic expansion are followed by periods of economic contraction (during which the economy slows down, and fewer goods and services are sold), the slowdown reaches its low point, and then expansion begins again. This pattern of expansion and contraction, common to all capitalist economies (economies in which businesses are mostly owned by private individuals, not the government), is called the business cycle.

The term business cycle can be used to refer to the overall pattern of fluctuations as well as to an individual period of expansion and contraction. In the second case a business cycle would consist of the period between two economic peaks.

The period between economic peaks can last many years, as with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Since then economic downturns have been less severe. One recession (a milder form of downturn than a depression) in the United States, for instance, officially spanned only March to November 2001.

A contracting economy brings trauma in the form of job losses for ordinary people, but economists generally agree that business cycles are inherent parts of capitalist economies and cannot be prevented. Governments attempt to soften the effects of business cycles by using fiscal policy (decisions about taxes and government spending) and monetary policy (alterations in a country’s money supply) to manage the economy and promote stability. Many economists believe that the knowledgeable use of these tools for controlling the economy explains why downturns since the Great Depression have been generally less severe than they were before it.

When Did It Begin

Because business cycles are believed to be a characteristic of all capitalist economies, their existence can probably be dated to the rise of capitalism in Europe during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Capitalism, in which profit-seeking individuals are the main force driving the economy, replaced the feudal system, in which the small number of people who owned land were the possessors of all wealth. Although business cycles may have been one source of economic instability for early capitalists, economists did not begin to understand them in any detail until much later.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the dominant school of economic thought was classical economics, which grew out of the ideas that Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723–90) presented in his 1776 masterwork, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Classical economists believed that free markets (in which businesses are not controlled by the government) regulated themselves and benefited everyone in a society more than alternate systems of organizing business and wealth did. They argued that those economies experiencing difficulties were simply unhealthy. In the late nineteenth century economists began to recognize that all free-market economies fluctuated over time and that these fluctuations were not necessarily signs that the economy was operating wrongly. A detailed understanding of business cycles, however, did not come until the twentieth century.

The American economist Wesley Mitchell (1874–1948) pioneered the measurement and analysis of business cycles as they are understood today. In 1920 he founded the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonprofit group devoted to studying business cycles. Mitchell’s views were presented most fully in the book Measuring Business Cycles (1946), coauthored by economist Arthur Burns (1904–87). Mitchell and Burns pointed out the ways in which various economic indicators (statistics representing important factors in the economy) moved together to bring about larger economic fluctuations. For instance, output (the total value of goods and services a country produces in a specific period of time) generally moves in combination with prices and the employment rate (which measures how many people have jobs; it is given as a percentage of everyone in a country who wants to work). By looking at these indicators, Burns and Mitchell showed, a government might be able to assess and manage business cycles. The NBER continues to provide the most authoritative word on the measurement of business cycles in the United States. It is extremely influential among government policymakers and within the business community.

More Detailed Information

An individual business cycle (the period between two economic peaks) consists of four phases: peak, recession, trough, and recovery. It is difficult for the NBER or anyone else who studies business cycles to know for certain which phase the economy is currently in or to predict when it will reach the next phase. This is because the actual economy is enormously complex, made up of countless individual transactions whose importance is not always immediately clear. The economy is, however, always in one of the above four phases, and economists keep a close watch on the indicators that are linked to each phase.

The economic indicator that is usually considered the most important one for analyzing business cycles is called gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP is a measure of the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country. When GDP is rising, the economy is in an upswing. During a downturn GDP falls, meaning fewer goods and services are being produced. When this happens, fewer workers are needed, so falling GDP is usually accompanied by higher rates of unemployment (the number of people who want to work but do not have jobs). When the economy recovers, more people get jobs, and unemployment rates generally fall. Therefore, employment is also one of the important indicators used to determine what phase of the business cycle an economy is in.

At a peak in the business cycle, GDP is at its highest level since the previous peak. This means that the economy is generating as large an amount of goods and services as it can produce. Businesses are using all of their resources as efficiently as possible, and as many people have jobs as the economy can provide; this level of employment is called full employment. Full employment does not mean zero percent unemployment. In the early twenty-first century an unemployment rate of about 4 to 5 percent was seen as full employment.

After the peak in a business cycle comes a period of decline called a recession. Most economic observers consider a recession to be in effect once the GDP has dropped for at least two consecutive quarters (three-month periods into which the economic year is divided). Along with falling GDP, business profits tend to decline, and unemployment rises. During a recession businesses as a whole produce less than they are capable of producing.

The trough is that portion of the cycle when GDP is at its lowest level. Businesses have more unused resources than at any time since the previous trough, and unemployment is usually at its high point. Although recession and trough are two separate phases of the business cycle, the total length of the recession includes both. The economy is not officially out of a recession until it is out of the trough.

After it bottoms out, the economy enters a period of recovery. GDP is rising, businesses are using more of their capabilities, and more people are employed. The economy remains on an upswing, also called an expansion, until it peaks. Then the whole process is repeated.

This sounds like a neat and organized pattern, and the word cycle may seem to suggest regularity. In reality, the length of each phase and cycle can vary dramatically. For instance, the recession of 2001 (from peak through trough of the business cycle) officially lasted only eight months. By contrast, the trough during the Great Depression did not come until 1933, four years after the economy’s peak in 1929. The intensity of the phases also varies from business cycle to business cycle. During a U.S. recession that lasted from July 1990 to March 1991, the country’s economic output fell by less than 1 percent. During the Great Depression, by contrast, output fell by almost 25 percent.

Recent Trends

The Great Depression radically changed the way governments and economists monitor the economy. Using data such as the information that the NBER provides and analyzes, governments now intervene in the hope of softening the intensity of business-cycle fluctuations. The U.S. government has two tools for influencing the economy. The first is fiscal policy (taxation and spending programs), which the president and Congress are largely responsible for crafting. The U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve System (commonly called the Fed), is entrusted with the other tool: the crafting of the nation’s monetary policy, or control over the money supply.

Today monetary policy is by far the more influential of the two government tools for controlling the economy. The reasons for this are complex, but they include the fact that the other tool, fiscal policy, can be inefficient because it usually takes Congress and the president some time (perhaps years) to approve and enact new measures. By that time the economic situation may have already changed.

The effects of monetary policy on the economy, however, can be dramatic. For instance, the recession of 1981–82 is widely believed to have been initiated by the Federal Reserve. The Fed, concerned about runaway inflation (the general rising of prices) during the 1970s, drastically restricted the money supply. This resulted in very high interest rates (the fees charged by institutions that lend money), which meant that businesses did not take out loans to expand their operations. GDP dropped, unemployment rose, and the economy went into recession. After the recession ended, the economy went into a period of strong growth.

Kuznets, Simon

views updated May 11 2018



Simon Kuznets was an economist, statistician, demographer, and economic historian. Born in Pinsk, Russia (now Belarus), he was educated in Kharkov (now Kharkiv, Ukraine), and headed a section of the bureau of labor statistics there under the Soviet government before emigrating to the United States at the age of 21. After receiving a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1926, he joined the research staff of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), where he conducted his seminal work on the estimation of national income. Both at Columbia and the NBER, he was strongly influenced by his mentor, economist Wesley C. Mitchell. From the 1950s on, the primary base for Kuznets's research was the Committee on Economic Growth of the Social Science Research Council, where he spearheaded an international program on the comparative study of economic growth. Kuznets held faculty appointments at the University of Pennsylvania (1930–1954), Johns Hopkins University (1954–1960), and Harvard University (1960–1971). He was president of the American Economic Association (1954), the American Statistical Association (1949), and was the third recipient of the Nobel prize in economics (1971) for his work on the comparative study of economic growth.

Kuznets's best-known contributions to population fall under three main heads: (1) measurement of population change; (2) analysis of interrelations between long swings in population growth and economic activity (Kuznets cycles); and (3) analysis of the long-term effect of population growth on economic growth.

Kuznets contributed to the development of new demographic data for the United States. His NBER Occasional Paper (written with Ernest Rubin) gives estimates of net immigration by decade, 1870–1940, and of the foreign-born white population by sex, annually, 1870–1939. In 1951, Kuznets and demographer and sociologist Dorothy S. Thomas initiated a study of population redistribution and economic growth. Under their joint direction, this work developed benchmark estimates of state internal migration (by Everett S. Lee), labor force (by Ann R. Miller and Carol Brainerd), and state income and manufacturing activity (by Richard A. Easterlin).

This work demonstrated conclusively that between 1870 and 1950 both international and internal migration in the United States fluctuated markedly over roughly twenty-year periods. Kuznets had earlier identified similar long swings in economic time series. In a major paper published in 1958, he brought together these two strands of work, pointing out a possible causal mechanism in which a swing in the growth rate of consumer goods output induced a corresponding movement in migration and this, in turn, caused a swing in population-sensitive capital formation. An outgrowth of this research on what came to be called Kuznets cycles was an NBER study of long swings in population and economic growth.

Demographers typically stress the adverse effects of population growth on economic growth. Kuznets adopted a more questioning stance. Based on evidence for 63 developed and developing countries from the early 1950s to 1964, he concluded that there was little empirical association between growth rates of population and output per capita, especially within the developing country bloc. Kuznets saw the basic obstacles to economic growth as arising from delays in adjusting social and political institutions, and viewed population growth, though an impediment, as of secondary importance. He was even more skeptical of the adverse effect of population growth for developed countries, and argued that more rapid population growth might promote economic development through a positive impact on the state of knowledge, the crucial factor underlying modern economic growth. This, along with Kuznets's empirical results, stimulated Julian Simon's assault on the premise of mainstream demography that population growth inevitably hinders economic development.

Most comparisons of the economic well-being of rich and poor use the distribution of income among families or households. But rich and poor families differ in size and age composition, and a meaningful comparison of economic welfare needs to allow for such differences. Beyond this, there is the question of how differences in mortality and fertility among income classes affect and are affected by the size distribution of income. These issues became the primary focus of Kuznets's research following his retirement from Harvard in 1971. This strand of Kuznets's work in demography has yet to be fully followed up.

In the discipline of economics where theory reigns supreme, Kuznets, though himself an original and creative thinker, was notable for his insistence on careful measurement and a respect for facts. In this regard he was, at heart, a demographer.

See also: Cycles, Population; Development, Population and; Easterlin, Richard A.; Simon, Julian L.; Thomas, Dorothy Swaine.


selected works by simon kuznets.

Kuznets, Simon. 1965. Economic Growth and Structure: Selected Essays. New York: Norton.

——. 1973. Population, Capital, and Growth: Selected Essays. New York: Norton.

——. 1979. Growth, Population, and Income Distribution: Selected Essays. New York: Norton.

——. 1980. "Recent Population Trends in Less Developed Countries and Implications for Internal Income Inequality." In Population and Economic Change in Developing Countries: A Conference Report, Universities–National Bureau Committee for Economic Research, no. 30, ed. Richard A. Easterlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 1989. Economic Development, the Family, and Income Distribution: Selected Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kuznets, Simon, and Dorthy S. Thomas, eds. 1957–1964. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. Vol. 45, 51, and 61: Population Redistribution and Economic Growth: United States, 1870–1950. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

selected works about simon kuznets.

Bergson, Abram. 1986. "Simon Kuznets: 30 April 1901–8 July 1985." American Philosophical Society Yearbook. 134–138.

Easterlin, Richard A. 1987. "Simon Kuznets." In The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, ed. John Eatwell, Murray Milgate, and Peter Newman. New York: The Stockton Press.

internet resource.

Fogel, Robert W. 2000. "Simon S. Kuznets: April 30, 1901–July 9, 1985," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 7787. Biographical Memoirs. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences. <>.

Richard A. Easterlin

Simon Kuznets

views updated May 14 2018

Simon Kuznets

American economist, researcher, and author, Simon Kuznets (1901-1985) won the Nobel Prize in 1971 for pioneering the use of a nation's gross national product to analyze economic growth.

Simon Kuznets was born in Kharkov, Russia, in 1901. At an early age he and his family emigrated from Russia to the United States. Kuznets and his family settled in New York City, where he attended school. He received his bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1923. He also attended Columbia University to do his graduate work, completing his master's degree in 1924 and his doctorate in 1926. His doctoral dissertation was entitled "Cyclical Fluctuations in Retail and Wholesale Trade." This work, in principle, set the stage for many of his future research efforts. In 1929 he married Edith Handler. They raised two children.

Kuznets' fields of specialization were economic growth, economic development, and economic planning theory and policy; the economics of technological change; and demographic economics. He taught in all of these areas and did research in them as well. He was especially interested in researching the relationship of population size and population traits to the process of long-term economic growth. His research was not restricted to the experience of the United States; quite to the contrary, he was interested in and did extensive analysis of the national income and growth data of a number of industrialized nations. In addition, Kuznets did a significant amount of research on secular movements in production levels and prices.

He was employed at the rank of professor in the Economics Department at the University of Pennsylvania from 1936 until 1954. He then joined the Economics Department at Johns Hopkins University as a full professor from 1954 until 1960. From 1960 until 1971, he was professor of economics at Harvard University and then professor of economics emeritus there until his death in 1985.

Kuznets was well known for his analysis involving national income data. Indeed, Kuznets was the intellectual "father" of modern methods of national income accounting. He was credited with having developed the basic format for studying both national income and product accounts and the composition of such accounts. In the process of his pioneering work on national income and related data, many important contributions to economic policy and economic understanding were developed. For example, digging back to the year 1870 Kuznets estimated national income and the components of national income for the United States for both the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. As a result, his studies involved him in a number of important national economic policy issues and debates. In point of fact, his involvement in such issues and debates won him recognition in a wide variety of economics textbooks.

One of the main issues in which Kuznets' studies played an important role involved the relationship among the levels of aggregate consumer spending, aggregate consumer saving, and aggregate household disposable income. For instance, the relationship between the level of aggregate consumer spending and the level of aggregate disposable income is critical to the effectiveness of public economic policy and to the formulation of public economic policy. Kuznets found that the proportion of per capita income that is saved had not significantly changed since the year 1870.

To many analysts, Kuznets' finding of a proportional relationship between the level of aggregate consumer spending and the level of aggregate disposable income was seemingly at odds with Keynesian theory and Keynesian policy analysis. In point of fact, the findings by Kuznets essentially related to the long run, whereas the theory of Keynes related essentially to the short run. The findings by Kuznets and the theories of Keynes actually supplemented each other. Indeed, the findings by Kuznets provided a most suitable format for the study of long-term economic growth. Among other things, Kuznets' findings helped to shape the evolution of modern theories of both macroeconomic growth and development and regional economic growth and development.

The work by Kuznets on national income accounting led to a myriad of other contributions. For example, Kuznets was apparently the first economist to observe a 15 to 25 year long business cycle involving business construction. As a result, Kuznets was able to contribute substantively to the study and the theory of business cycles in industrialized nations. In addition, Kuznets had several insightful observations to make regarding the components of the national income and product accounts. For instance, national defense expenditures are classified as "regrettable necessities."

Kuznets received recognition and honors on many occasions. For example, he was voted in as the president of the prestigious American Economic Association in 1954. In itself, this is an honor of enormous proportions, for only an economist of true distinction is ever awarded such recognition.

In 1971 Kuznets received the Nobel Prize for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth. Kuznets' receipt of this honor is an example of a prize awarded for inductive analysis rather than deductive analysis. In point of fact, Kuznets' greatest strength had been to reveal new facts and new relationships about the real world. He was able to find "new truths" about the real world with the aid of common sense and rational thinking and with a minimum of the elegant, formal economic models with which most economic researchers are so enamored. An example of a "new truth" derived by Kuznets is his celebrated "law" of the relationship between long-term economic growth in a society and the distribution of income in that society.

In certain respects, the Nobel Prize to Simon Kuznets may be regarded as an award for interdisciplinary research. In integrating techniques from economic analysis, statistics, and history, Kuznets attempted to give quantitative precision to fields of study that were supposed to be pertinent to the understanding of the processes of economic development and social development. He was a pathbreaker in the integrated use of technology, population, marketing, and industrial structure.

Further Reading

The work of Simon Kuznets is perhaps best represented in his two-volume work entitled National Income and Its Composition, 1919-1938 (1941). Kuznets also examined long-term economic growth in 14 Western industrial nations in his book Modern Economic Growth: Rate, Structure, and Spread (1966). □

Business Cycle

views updated May 11 2018


Business cycle is the name given to the tendency of all economies to go through periods of economic weakness followed by periods of economic growth. When employment, income, trade, and the production of goods and services declines the economy is said to be in a "recession" or a "contraction." If this downturn is particularly harsh, this part of the business cycle is known as a "depression." Conversely, when employment, income, trade, and the production of goods and services grows over a sustained period of time, the economy is said to be enjoying an "expansion." Thus, the term business cycle describes the full process of economic growth and shrinkageof "boom" followed by "bust"that every economy experiences. The causes for changes in the business cycle are as complex as the economy itself, but important factors are over investment, under consumption of goods and services, and the amount of money circulating in the economy. Business cycles can differ greatly in their length, in the number of industries they affect, and in their harshness. Today economists use dozens of statistical measures to try to identify when a business cycle has ended or begun. These include, among others, new factory orders, number of business bankruptcies, stock market performance, new home building, and length of average work week.

Between 1790 and 1990 the United States experienced 44 complete business cycles, each of which lasted about four and a half years (i.e., including both a recessionary period and an expansionary period). In the nineteenth century the recessionary period of the business cycle was usually accompanied by a financial panic in which stock prices fell and banks and businesses went bankrupt. The longest recession in U.S. history during the nineteenth century was between 1873 and 1879. The most severe recession was the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1939. To understand how disastrous the Great Depression was one should consider that during the recession of 19731975 the gross national product fell six percent, while during the Great Depression it fell a staggering 50 percent. Since World War II (19391945), however, the business cycle has become much more mild because economists and government leaders know much more about the role the money supply and government fiscal policy can play in affecting the business cycle. When the economy begins to contract, for example, the Federal Reserve can quickly lower interest rates to encourage lending, which stimulates economic growth.

See also: Federal Reserve System, Financial Panic, Recession

Kuznets, Simon

views updated Jun 27 2018


KUZNETS, SIMON (1901–1985), U.S. economist, Nobel laureate. Born in Russia, Kuznets was educated in the U.S. He was assistant professor and then full professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania (1936–54), and in 1960 was appointed professor of economics at Harvard. Kuznets' research in quantitative economics and his contribution to the understanding of modern economic growth encouraged new studies of the economic growth of nations. He sponsored the annual Conference of Research in Income and Wealth, organized from 1935 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and he was among the founders in 1947 of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth. From 1954 to 1964 he was chairman of the United States-based advisory committee of the Falk Project for Economic Research in Israel, and from 1964 he was a member of the board of trustees of its successor, the Maurice Falk Institute for Economic Research in Israel.

Kuznets' research may be divided into three periods. Between 1926 and 1930 he concentrated on analyzing economic change, examining movements in production and prices, cyclical fluctuations, and seasonal variations in industry and trade. During the following two decades his work centered on measuring national income with emphasis on capital formation. After 1950 he focused on explaining the comparative economic growth of nations. He was also particularly concerned with the practical application of his research, and during World War ii his national account framework served to study the feasibility of the war production program and to control it. Kuznets stressed the link between the social and economic framework of society that is apparent not only in the history of nations but also in minority groups like the Jews. In the Diaspora they congregated in urban areas where they entered the professions or specialized in finance and trade. Their frequent displacements affected their economic development. Jews have been conditioned to accept economic change and to enter occupations and industries with growth potential where there have been opportunities for economic advancement. This significantly influenced the level of income and wealth of Jewish minorities as compared with their gentile surroundings.

Kuznets retired from Harvard in 1971 and was given the title of George F. Baker Professor Emeritus of Economics. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his "empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into economic and social structure and process of development."

Kuznets' publications include National Income and its Composition 1919–1938 (1941), Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings (1953), Capital in the American Economy: Its Formation and Financing (1961), and Modern Economic Growth (1966), Economic Growth of Nations (1971), Quantitative Economic Research (1972), Population, Capital, and Growth (1973), National Income (1975), and Commodity Flow and Capital Formation (1975).

add. bibliography:

M. Feldstein et al., American Economy in Transition (1980).

[Rachel Floersheim /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

business cycle

views updated May 14 2018

business cycle Recurring economic cycles, involving a period of above-average growth (expansionist phase), followed by one of lower than average growth (recession), then one of negative growth (depression). Modern economists generally assume that the ‘normal’, ‘classic’, or ‘Juglar’ cycle lasts approximately five years, but there is no consensus as to its causes, indeed there are some who have argued that the fluctuations themselves are random rather than uniform in character. The Russian-born American development economist Simon Kuznets also identified a longer economic cycle (‘Kuznets cycle’) lasting some fifteen to twenty years. So-called Kondratieff cycles (named after the Russian economist who developed the idea in the 1920s) consist of ‘long wave’ cycles of boom and recession averaging half a century or so, fuelled by major technological and industrial advances, such as the advent of steam power. These cycles are often linked to developments in the world-system (see, for example, Christopher Chase-Dunn and and Peter Grimes , ‘World-Systems Analysis’, Annual Review of Sociology, 1995

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