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What Is the Business Cycle?

What Is the Business Cycle?
Susan Guillory
Susan GuilloryUpdated December 30, 2022
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The business cycle is a period of time where the economy expands, peaks, contracts, and bottoms out. Then the cycle repeats itself. Business cycles are relevant on both a macroeconomic and a microeconomic level, which means your business experiences them along with the larger economy in which it operates. Understanding the business cycle can help you identify economic trends and changes and make informed decisions regarding your company’s finances. Here’s a closer look at the business cycle, including how it works, how it can impact your business, plus examples of the business cycle in action.

Business Cycle Defined

By definition, the business cycle represents economic growth and decline through distinct phases. These phases often occur in an identifiable pattern where one phase tends to follow the other. They typically include: expansion, peak, recession, and trough. Financial professionals and organizations measure the business cycle primarily by the increases and decreases in the gross domestic product (GDP), along with the influences of trade and production costs. A business cycle is completed when it goes through a single boom and a single contraction in sequence. The time period to complete this sequence is called the length of the business cycle. Governments try to manage business cycles by spending, raising or lowering taxes, and adjusting interest rates.

How the Business Cycle Works

As consumer confidence starts to build, the economy experiences an expansion. When businesses are increasing production, they need more employees. As a result, more people are hired, there is more money to spend, and businesses make more profits and can focus on growth. Economic expansion continues until circumstances occur that cause production to slow.If business production slows, not as many employees are needed. As a result, consumers have less money to spend and businesses reduce spending on growth. This results in an economic contraction. When the total output of an economy declines (recession) and ultimately bottoms (trough), we then enter the next cycle’s expansion phase.The average business cycle in the US is about six years. Recommended: How to Write a 5-Year Business Plan 

Stages of the Business Cycle

While there are four main phases in a business cycle, a business cycle can actually consist of six distinct stages, involving high and low points. There is no set length of time for each stage; some could be short-term, while others could last many years. In some cases, the stages of the business cycle may only be able to be identified in retrospect. The stages of a business cycle can include:

1. Expansion

During a period of expansion, business is booming for the majority of companies. During this stage, companies will often hire more employees, take out different types of small business loans, and invest in growth. Believing that employment is steady and income assured, consumers will generally spend more, and supply and demand match up fairly evenly. Prices may start to rise now. 

2. Peak

The peak stage is when the economy hits a saturation point. Production and prices have reached their limit and the market can’t bear any more increases. Consumers may cut back on their spending because they can’t afford to pay the increased prices. This is the turning point – with no room for growth left, there's nowhere to go but down. A contraction is on the way.

3. Recession

Once that peak has been reached, the business cycle enters a contraction. At this stage, people don’t buy as many things. Often businesses do not notice the decrease in demand instantly and go on producing, which often creates a situation of excess supply in the market. Prices tend to fall and companies may pull back on hiring or investing in growth, and may even lay off employees, causing a rise in unemployment. When the GDP has declined for two consecutive quarters, the economy is often considered to be in a recession. Generally, the central bank will lower interest rates during an economic contraction to help stimulate economic growth and avoid a recession.

4. Depression

If growth continues to decline, the economy can reach the depression stage. In this  stage, the economy’s growth rate becomes negative. There is extensive depletion of national income and expenditure. Companies may lay off even more employees and find ways to drastically reduce spending. Production of products drops, due to lack of demand, and prices continue to fall. The economy eventually reaches the trough. 

5. Trough

This is the lowest point in economic loss. Prices may continue to drop, but they level off as the contraction phase bottoms out and starts to rebound into an expansion phase. 

6. Recovery

At last, there is a turnaround in the economy as it begins to recover. Consumers and investors begin to feel more confident about the economy, and spending picks up since prices are still low. Companies may start to spend on growth again, replacing depreciated capital and making new investments in the production process. Employment begins to rise and, due to accumulated cash balances with banks, lending also shows positive signs. Recovery continues until the economy returns to steady growth levels.  

Pros and Cons of the Business Cycle as a Model

While tracking the larger business cycle in the country can be beneficial for your business financial planning, there are some drawbacks as well. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of using the business cycle as a model when making business decisions.
Helps business owners predict future conditionsEconomic predictions don’t always come to pass
Can consider where economy is headed when drafting budget and business plan for following yearBusiness cycle modeling is not an exact science and open to interpretation
Can purchase capital goods and increase production in anticipation of increased demandResearchers who gather data and study business cycle trends are capable of human error
Can lock in a low interest rate on refinancing before rates riseIn some cases, the stages of the business cycle can only be identified in retrospect
Recommended: What is a Business SWOT Analysis? 

Market vs Business Cycles

Business cycles and market cycles may sound like the same thing but, technically, they are different. A market cycle refers to different growth and decline stages of the stock market, whereas the business cycle looks at the economy as a whole.The two cycles are related, however. The stock market is affected by, and often mirrors, the phases of a business cycle. During the contraction stage of the business cycle, investors tend to sell their holdings, leading to a drop in stock prices. This is known as a bear market. During an expansion phase of the business cycle, investors often buy up stocks, causing prices to go up. This is known as a bull market. Eventually, the economy, and the market, will pick back up again, heading toward a bull market, and the cycle repeats.
Business CycleMarket Cycle
Refers the economy as a wholeRefers to the stock market
Has periods of expansion and contractionHas periods of expansion and contraction
Defined by economic growth and recessionDefined by bull and bear markets
Influenced by consumer confidenceInfluenced by investor confidence

Measuring Business Cycles

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonprofit organization, defines and measures business cycles in the U.S. The NBER actually has a Business Cycle Dating Committee that is responsible for determining the start and end of a business cycle.NBER primarily relies on quarterly GDP growth rates to identify a business cycle. However, it will also look at other financial data, including income, retail sales, manufacturing output.The NBER does not release this information until analysts thoroughly evaluate it. This means you may not know when a new business cycle begins until well after it's started. However, you can usually take note of a few key indicators (such as interest rates, total employment, and consumer spending) to see where you are in the business cycle.

Example of the Business Cycle

One famous example of the business cycle is the Great Depression, which began in 1929. Before the economy began to contract, the GDP rate was high and unemployment was low, thanks to new developments like the airline industry. The expansion phase reached a peak, and then the economy began to decline – unemployment rose, GDP fell, and the depression occurred. The economy hit the trough around 1933, after which it began to recover.A more recent business cycle example is the Great Recession. The US economy started an expansion period in 2000, and then, beginning in late 2007, it went through the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The downturn was triggered by the bursting of a housing bubble, which led to a global financial crisis. Following a trough in June 2009, the economy began to recover and expand, reaching a peak in February 2020.

The Takeaway

The business cycle refers to the rise and fall in economic activity caused by factors like interest rates, trade, production costs, and investments. A business cycle is completed when it goes through a single boom and a single contraction in sequence. The extreme points are the peak and the trough.While economic forecasts and modeling aren't perfectly reliable, combining information about business cycles with what you know about your particular industry and company can help you to prepare for shifts in the economy before or soon after these changes occur. For example, understanding where you are in a business cycle can also help you decide if it’s a good time to apply for a small business loan, make capital investments, or hire more employees.Understanding that the economy travels through cycles can also help you put current business conditions in better perspective.

3 Small Business Loan Tips

  1. Generally, it can be easier for entrepreneurs starting out to qualify for a loan from an online lender than from a traditional lender. Lantern by SoFi’s single application makes it easy to find and compare small business loan offers from multiple lenders.
  2. If you are launching a new business or your business is young, lenders will consider your personal credit score. Eventually, though, you’ll want to establish your business credit.
  3. If you need to borrow money to cover seasonal cash flow fluctuations, a business line of credit, rather than a term loan, provides the flexibility you likely need.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many stages are in the business cycle?
What are the stages of the business cycle?
What is the purpose of the business cycle?

About the Author

Susan Guillory

Susan Guillory

Su Guillory is a freelance business writer and expat coach. She’s written several business books and has been published on sites including Forbes, AllBusiness, and SoFi. She writes about business and personal credit, financial strategies, loans, and credit cards.
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