Recession vs. Depression: How To Tell the Difference

What makes a depression so much worse than a recession?

Depression soup line

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A recession is a widespread economic decline that typically lasts between two and 18 months. A depression is a more severe downturn that lasts for years. The most famous depression in U.S. history was the Great Depression. It lasted a decade.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Great Depression was a combination of two recessions. The first lasted for 43 months, from August 1929 to March 1933. The next lasted 13 months, from May 1937 to June 1938. The severe downturn lasted for about 10 years combined. There have been 34 recessions since 1854. Recessions have lasted for approximately 10 months on average since 1945.

Key Takeaways

  • There have been 34 recessions in the U.S. since 1854, but only one depression.
  • Recessions last for months, while a depression can last for years.
  • A recession is often the result of consumers losing confidence in the economy due to some major event, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Signs of a Recession

There are five indicators that economists can use to determine whether or not the economy is in a recession.

  • Negative real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for two or more quarters can indicate a recession.
  • A decline in consumer's real income can indicate a recession, since consumer purchasing power will also decline.
  • The strength of the manufacturing sector, and whether there is a trade surplus or deficit, helps economists determine whether the economy is self-sufficient.
  • Inflation-adjusted retail and wholesale sales of products and goods can show economists whether there is a recession.
  • A high unemployment rate, which would be about six percent or higher, indicates that the economy has already entered a recession.

Recession vs. Depression

Gross domestic product (GDP) contracts for at least a few months in a recession. GDP growth will slow for several quarters before it turns negative in a typical recession.

There's also a drop in four other critical economic indicators: income, employment, manufacturing, and retail sales. These reports come out each month, while the GDP is released quarterly, so they can signal a recession before the GDP turns negative.

A depression is longer and more destructive than a recession. The economic contraction from a depression lasts for years, not quarters. GDP was negative for six out of the 10 years during the Great Depression. It shrank by a record of 12.9% in 1932, unemployment reached nearly 25% in 1933, and prices dropped for four years in a row in the 1930s.

The devastation of a depression is so great that the effects of the Great Depression lasted for decades after it ended. The stock market didn't recover until 1954.

  • A recession lasts for months

  • There have been 34 recessions in the U.S. since 1854

  • A recession is signaled by a drop in employment, retail sales, manufacturing, and income

  • A depression lasts for years

  • A depression has only occurred once in the U.S. since 1854

  • A depression's effects on the economy can last for decades

Causes of a Recession

Causes of a recession include:

  • Loss of confidence in investment and the economy
  • High interest rates
  • A stock market crash
  • Falling housing prices and sales
  • Manufacturing orders slow down
  • Deregulation
  • Poor management
  • Wage-price controls
  • Post-war slowdowns
  • Credit crunches
  • Asset bubbles burst
  • Deflation

Consumers will stop buying and businesses will lay off workers when there's no confidence in the future. These situations create a downward spiral of unemployment, loan defaults, and bankruptcies.

A shock often triggers this type of panic reaction, such as a stock market crash, wage-price controls, the collapse of an asset bubble, or an unanticipated reaction to government action, such as deregulation or an increase in interest rates. It's business behavior at other times, such as poor management or credit crunches. It was a pandemic in 2020.


Stocks are a piece of ownership in a company, so the stock market is a vote of confidence in the future of these companies. It's also a referendum on the U.S. economy itself.

A crash can scare consumers, who then buy less, and this triggers a recession. The crash restricts financing for new businesses. The sale of stocks provides them with the funds they need to grow.

The stock market will continue to fall if confidence isn't restored, and the extreme loss of confidence may also trigger a recession.

Causes of the Great Depression

There are many theories about what caused the Great Depression. Some common theories include the speculation and buying on margin that led to the stock market crash of 1929, the Smoot-Hawley tariff and the resulting freeze in international trade, the Fed raising interest rates, and the gold standard, which led nervous investors to trade their dollars in for gold.


Follow the Great Depression Timeline to find out what caused the Depression, how bad it was, and what finally ended it.

Bottom Line

Your life would change dramatically if the United States were to experience an economic downturn on the scale of the Great Depression. One out of four people would lose their jobs. The stock market would drop by 50%, and it would take decades, not months, to recover.


The COVID-19 pandemic caused a recession, but not a depression. Unlike the early years of the Great Depression, Congress used expansionary fiscal policy to assist Americans. The CARES Act sent a $1,200 stimulus check to eligible adults earning up to $75,000. It also expanded unemployment benefits.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What causes a recession?

There are many factors that can contribute to or cause a recession, including high interest rates, stock market crashes, sudden or unexpected price changes, and deflation.

How long is a recession before it becomes a depression?

Recessions last an average of ten months in the United States, and typically last between two and 18 months. A depression lasts for several years. The Great Depression lasted ten years, and the depression that followed the panic of 1837 lasted six years.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Bureau of Economic Research. "U.S. Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions."

  3. Corporate Finance Institute. "Recession."

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  14. U.S. Congress. "H.R. 748 - CARES Act."

  15. Harvard Business School. "1837: The Hard Times."

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