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Can falling pregnancy rates signal a coming recession? These economists think so.

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WASHINGTON -- If you think giving birth looks painful, looking at the cost of bringing a child into this world might actually hurt your wallet.

No, seriously. Giving birth can cost thousands of dollars. The median cost of a vaginal birth with no complications is a whopping $10,958, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And for those who opt for a Cesarean section (C-section) the median cost is $18,570.

All of that said, it kind of makes sense that women wouldn't want to get pregnant if the economy looks like it's going down the drain.

"It's been said that children are the ultimate vote of confidence in the future and that may be picking up with this indicator."
Kasey Buckles

A new study, "Is Fertility a Leading Economic Indicator?" which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that pregnancy rates can actually act as an economic indicator.

"It's been said that children are the ultimate vote of confidence in the future and that may be picking up with this indicator," said Kasey Buckles, an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and research associate at NBER.

NBER researchers analyzed birth certificate data on 109 million births from 1988 to 2015 and found that falling pregnancy rates could indicate a coming recession.

Buckles said economists have been looking at the relationship between fertility and the business cycle for more than a century. But Buckles and other economic researchers with NBER found that the decline in conceptions, at least for the last three recessions in the U.S., actually started well before an economic downturn.

"Our paper is surprising in that we show that just a loss of confidence or a sense of things changing in the economy is enough to affect people's fertility."
Kasey Buckles

On top of that, Buckles said that based on their research, conceptions perform as well or better than common indicators like consumer confidence or durables purchases.

Buckles explained that before the Great Recession, which officially began in 2007, the stock market was reaching all-time highs.

"Lots of surveys of opinions and comments from other policy makers, even into 2008, suggested that people were quite optimistic about what was going to happen over the next couple of years," she said.

But despite the optimism from policy makers, fertility rates were painting a very different picture of the country's economic prospects.

"We see the decline in conceptions start to happen as early as 2006, so that's about a year before the real trouble in the economy," Buckles explained. "With the Great Recession, we think that may be linked to what was going on in the housing market because that sector was showing signs of weakness before the Great Recession began."

Buckles added that people may have taken their falling housing values into consideration when planning a family at that time.

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NBER researchers found this pattern of falling pregnancy rates didn't ring true for recessions that occurred before the late 1980s. Buckles said that could be due to the nature of those recessions and the fact that many of those early recessions were driven by what was happening with monetary policy.

"But it's also certainly true that people have better control over their fertility than they did in the 1960s and 1970s," she added. "So people are now better able to act on their desires for precise fertility timing."

Although pregnancy rates performed well as an economic indicator, Buckles said using fertility to predict economic downturns doesn't come without challenges.

The biggest hurdle, Buckles added, is that it's difficult to get real-time data.

That's because there's a 9-month lag between conceptions and the actual birth certificate data. In the paper, NBER researchers discuss using internet searches or retail scanner data to "track purchases made by people who are either trying to conceive or newly pregnant."

"We've done some exploratory work with the retail scanner data, looking at things like pregnancy tests, ovulation kits, multivitamins, pregnancy vitamins, and we think that shows some promise but that data is really relatively new," Buckles said.

Right now, however, the only retail scanner data they really have to look at is from the Great Recession.

So while Buckles doesn't hope for another recession, she said it will probably take that for economic researchers to see if any of those techniques really work.

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