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What Is a ‘Rolling Recession' and How Does It Affect Consumers? Economic Experts Explain

Phiromya Intawongpan | E+ | Getty Images
  • There's a lot of speculation about whether a recession is coming in 2023.
  • Some economists say the country is already experiencing a "rolling recession," rather than a broad contraction to come later.
  • There are certain steps Americans can take now to prepare for successive downturns.

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By most measures, the U.S. economy is in solid shape.

Although the first half of 2022 started off with negative growth, a strong labor market and resilient consumer helped turn things around and give hope for the year ahead.

Gross domestic product, which tracks the overall health of the economy, rose more than expected in the fourth quarter, and the Federal Reserve is widely expected to announce a more modest rate hike at next week's policy meeting as inflation starts to ease.

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Still, some portions of the economy, such as housing, manufacturing and corporate profits, have shown signs of a slowdown, and a wave of recent layoffs fueled fears that a recession still looms. 

"There's no scarcity of economists with strong opinions," said Tomas Philipson, a professor of public policy studies at the University of Chicago and former acting chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "There's a lot of scarcity of economists with the right opinion."

A 'rolling recession' may already be underway

Rather than an abrupt contraction Americans need to brace for, a "rolling recession" is already in progress, according to Sung Won Sohn, professor of finance and economics at Loyola Marymount University and chief economist at SS Economics. "This means some parts of the economy take turns suffering rather than simultaneously."

In fact, the worst may even be over, he said.

A large portion of the reaction to the Fed's moves has worked its way through the economy and the financial markets. Businesses trimmed inventories and cut jobs in some areas, and consumers refinanced their homes ahead of rising rates.

"It is time to think about an exit strategy," Sohn said.

"Expectations about a recession have been pretty inaccurate," added Yiming Ma, an assistant finance professor at Columbia University Business School.

"This cycle has proven so many of our traditional theories wrong," Ma said.

In fact, this could be the soft landing Fed officials have been aiming for after aggressively raising interest rates to tame inflation, she added.

What this means for consumers

But regardless of the country's economic standing, many Americans are struggling in the face of sky-high prices for everyday items, such as eggs, and most have exhausted their savings and are now leaning on credit cards to make ends meet.

Several reports show financial well-being is deteriorating overall.

"For consumers, there's a lot of uncertainty," Philipson said. For now, the focus should be on sustaining income and avoiding high-interest debt, he added.

"Don't plan any major future expenses," he said. "No one knows where this economy is going."

How to prepare your finances for a rolling recession

While the impact of inflation is being felt across the board, every household will experience a rolling recession to a different degree, depending on their industry, income, savings and job security.  

Still, there are a few ways to prepare that are universal, according to Larry Harris, the Fred V. Keenan Chair in Finance at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and a former chief economist of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here's his advice:

  • Streamline your spending. "If they expect they will be forced to cut back, the sooner they do it, the better off they'll be," Harris said. That may mean cutting a few expenses now that you just want and really don't need, such as the subscription services that you signed up for during the Covid pandemic. If you don't use it, lose it.
  • Avoid variable-rate debts. Most credit cards have a variable annual percentage rate, which means there's a direct connection to the Fed's benchmark, so anyone who carries a balance has seen their interest charges jump with each move by the Fed. Homeowners with adjustable-rate mortgages or home equity lines of credit, which are pegged to the prime rate, have also been affected.
  • Stash extra cash in Series I bonds. These inflation-protected assets, backed by the federal government, are nearly risk-free and are currently paying 6.89% annual interest on new purchases through this April, down from the 9.62% yearly rate offered from May through October last year.
    Although there are purchase limits and you can't tap the money for at least one year, you'll score a much better return than a savings account or a one-year certificate of deposit. Rates on online savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs have all gone up, but those returns still don't compete with inflation.

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