The Business Cycle and the Economy

Economic activity in the United States changes from year to year. The production of goods and services increases in one time frame while normal economic growth does not occur in another. Although these changes are irregular and unpredictable, most of the macroeconomic variables involved are interrelated and move together. This is particularly true about real output and unemployment. Fluctuations in real GDP and the unemployment rate are inversely related…as output drops, unemployment rises. These short-run changes in output and unemployment are known as the business cycle.

A business cycle is changes in output, income, and employment within the total economy. When businesses operate near capacity and real GDP (output) is rising, a peak occurs. As business slows, the economy contracts, sales drop, real GDP slows down, and unemployment increases. The business condition bottoms out at a trough where real GDP is dropping and unemployment is rising. When business conditions improve, an expansion phase occurs where sales increase, GDP grows quickly, and unemployment drops until economic growth reaches a peak again. Then the cycle starts over. Economic growth does not go on for an indefinite period because extended periods of growth, as well as short periods of concentrated growth, are eventually joined by higher rates of inflation. These higher prices spur policymakers to stimulate a downturn in hopes of reducing inflationary pressures by slowing economic growth.

Economic policy makers, the Federal Reserve Board with its monetary policies and the government with its fiscal policies, interpret and react to business cycles. They try to forecast just where the economy is going in the near future based on leading economic indicators. The ultimate goal is to sustain real GDP growth at a constant 3% non-inflationary rate, to keep the unemployment rate at the full-employment level of 5% to 6%, and to curtail inflation by keeping it at no more than 3%. In essence, policy makers try to level out the business cycle by diminishing the extent of differences in economic growth over the cycle. The explanation of how the Fed carries out monetary policy is the manner in which it responds to changes in output. The Fed can reduce output in the short-run by contracting the money supply. It can increase short-run output by increasing the money supply. The Federal Reserve can also increase or decrease interest rates to try and parallel aggregate demand growth with aggregate supply growth from year to year. For example: if the Fed decides that GDP is slowing down to a meaningfully lower growth rate, it may reduce interest rates to stimulate economic growth. Actions by the Fed definitely affect the quantity of output produced in the U.S. economy.

The Fed scrutinizes several economic variables that are indicators of economic growth and inflation. Monitoring changes in unemployment, the cost of labor, the use of productive capacity, the price of commodities, business inventories, and worker productivity allow the Fed to predict where the economy is headed. By monitoring the combined effect of economic indicators, the Fed is able to take action to either slow growth before inflation increases or expand growth if the economy has taken a downturn.