The two previous recessions, in 1990-91 and in 2001, each lasted eight months and were mild enough that the committee felt confident in pronouncing them over in a year or less. As it was, the current recession was 11 months old before the committee announced its start date.
Now, the committee, which is part of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit group, says that the timing of an upward turn has been harder to discern than in the past. Moreover, the government has revised several statistics after they were initially released, making it more difficult to say when the economy hit bottom.
“Hypothetically, if there were a new sharp downturn that came along tomorrow, would it count as a new recession or part of the same recession?” asked Jeffrey A. Frankel, a member of the panel, officially known as the Business Cycle Dating Committee. “In the latter case, we would have made a mistake by calling the trough last year and saying the recession was over.”
In interviews, several committee members carefully chose their words. Citing job gains in March, Mr. Frankel, an economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, declared on his blog last week, “The recession is over.” He said he made that case when the committee met Friday in Cambridge, Mass., but added that he could see that a strong argument could be made for holding off on a pronouncement.
Another committee member, Robert E. Hall of Stanford, said, “The odds favor the view that a true expansion has begun and that the recession beginning in 2007 is over.”
But he added that “one cannot totally rule out the unlikely possibility that the economy might resume contraction again soon.”
Under such a situation, he said, the upswing that began in the second half of 2009 would be “only an interruption in a longer contraction, and not an expansion.” But he added, “Currently, forecasters are assigning low probability to such a development.”
A third committee member, James H. Stock, a Harvard economist, has also been associated with the belief that the recession ended last year. On Sunday, Mr. Stock would not describe the discussion.
But he said: “It’s incumbent on the N.B.E.R. to maintain its decades-long tradition of care in the detailed assessment of the date of turning points. That is a far more difficult task than I think many commentators understand.”
A fourth committee member, Martin S. Feldstein, also of Harvard, warned in January of the risk of a double-dip recession. “There is a significant risk the economy could run out of steam sometime in 2010,” he said at a meeting of the American Economic Association. Reached on Sunday, Mr. Feldstein declined to elaborate publicly on his views.
Mr. Frankel and Mr. Hall have been quoted as saying that the recession has ended. In the Internet era, those comments generated more buzz than the bureau is accustomed to. Asked why the committee would not just wait, several members cited the public interest and a desire for transparency.