Britain never had a double dip recession – and that doesn't matter

The magic of GDP revisions.

The ONS has released a bumper set of GDP revisions, taking a fresh look at the national output all the way back to 1997. The headline points:

  • The recession in 2009 was much more severe than previously thought. The agency has revised its estimate of the 2009 contraction from 4 per cent of GDP to 5.2 per cent; an increase of a third.
  • A change of 0.1 percentage points has erased the "double-dip" recession in 2011. The contractions in Q4 2011 and Q2 2012 still exist, but Q1 2012 is now estimated to have had exactly 0.0 per cent growth; the wiggle thus no longer qualifies as a technical recession.
  • Historically, the 2001 slump after the dot-com boom also appears to have been much worse than previously thought. Rather than the economy growing by 2.9 per cent that year, it grew by 2.2 per cent, a revision of 0.7 percentage points.

The immediate effect of the revision is political. The double-dip recession has been extraordinarily damaging for the Government, allowing the Opposition a concrete fact to point to to back up the claims that they "inherited growth and provided recession". The revisions eliminate the negative growth in one quarter, and mean that that period no longer meets the requirement of two or more consecutive quarters of negative growth which defines a recession.

But that is a technicality of the highest order. The estimate for growth over those three quarters combined is exactly the same as it was yesterday: a contraction of 0.6 per cent. All that has happened is that the timing of some of that contraction has shifted. Q2 2012 is now thought to be marginally worse, and Q1 2012 is now thought to be marginally better.

In other words, as I said back in April 2012, technical recessions don't matter. They impose an artificial dividing line between "good" and "bad" growth, when in fact, going by yesterday's stats or today's, that period is and always was mediocre. Horribly, cripplingly mediocre.

Anaemic growth is just as bad as a technical recession. In many ways, it's worse; whereas technical recessions are at least expected to end, the stagnation which we are living at the moment has stretched out for almost half a decade, and could well last almost half a decade more.

The more interesting fact is that the recession and depression have been massively increased in size. Since 2008, the economy has actually contracted by 1.1 per cent more than we thought. That increases the so-called "productivity puzzle": why has unemployment been falling while GDP hasn't been increasing? That puzzle is partially solved with the realisation that the labour market improvement stopped six months ago; but there still appears to be a disconnect between the two measures. The commonly cited solution to the puzzle is to argue that labour productivity has dropped; but even that just pushes the question further down the tree. Why is our productivity down so much?

But the number one take-home lesson from all of this is: GDP is actually kind of crappy. It's estimated from samples several steps removed from actually "measuring the size of the economy". It misses out huge sectors of the economy, from unpaid caring and parenting to increasingly mainstream aspects of the shadow economy like transactions in bitcoin. And it's wrong; sometimes for decades on end.

Perhaps we should take the advice of former MPC member Andrew Sentence (who has been predicting this recession would be revised out of existence for a year), and focus on more important and less volatile indicators like unemployment and business activity. Not only would that reduce the risk of rewriting history: it would also mean that doing well could no longer be defined as "not failing".

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war