What is a Business Cycle?

Victor Zarnowitz

NBER Working Paper No. 3863 (Also Reprint No. r1785)
Issued in October 1991
NBER Program(s):Economic Fluctuations and Growth

This paper considers the question in its title from several angles. Part 1 looks at economic history and the development of thinking about business cycles - the popular meaning and economists' definitions and ideas. Part 2 reviews the lessons from business cycle chronologies and duration data, the concepts of periodicity of cycles and phases, and the apparent moderation of macroeconomic fluctuations in the second half of the 20th century. Part 3 compares the recent business cycles and growth cycles for several major industrialized, market-oriented countries. Part 4 discusses the role of endogenous cyclical variables, the outside shocks of various types, the systematic timing sequences, and the regularities of cyclical comovements and amplitudes. Understanding business cycles is aided by each of these models of analysis. Business cycles have varied greatly over the past 200 years in length, spread, and size. At the same time, they are distinguished by their recurrence, persistence, and pervasiveness. They make up a class of varied, complex, and evolving phenomena of both history and economic dynamics. Theories or models that try to reduce them to a single causal mechanism or shock are unlikely to succeed.

download in pdf format
   (719 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w3863

Published: The Business Cycle: Theories and Evidence, edited by Michael T. Belongia and Michelle R. Garfinkel, pp. 3-72. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992.

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Zarnowitz Macroeconomics and Business Cycles: An Overview
Zarnowitz w1503 Recent Work on Business Cycles in Historical Perspective: Review of Theories and Evidence
Zarnowitz Recent Work on Business Cycles in Historical Perspective
Shapiro and Watson Sources of Business Cycles Fluctuations
Burns The Nature and Causes of Business Cycles
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us