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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.