Last Friday, the ONS revised its estimates of the size of British construction output over 2012. It now thinks that the construction sector shrank by 5 per cent in the first quarter of that year, compared to the 5.4 per cent contraction it had previously estimated. (Although that's good news, the picture is less rosy for the other three quarters of the year, which were all revised downwards.)
That upward revision would be enough to bring the overall growth figure for Q1 2012 to exactly zero; hence the Saturday Mail story dubbing it "The double-dip that never was! Osborne gets a surprise boost as 'growth' was 0.0% rather than -0.1%".
There are two things to say at this point. Firstly, the nitpicking: the ONS is also due to announce the latest revisions to the service sector on the 23rd of this month (estimates for production, the third main component, were published on the 9th). Those revisions could be in either direction, and, given the size of services in the overall economy, it would not take a large downward swing to wipe out the "gains" from production. So it's too early to say for certain that the double-dip has been erased.
But the broader point is that it does not matter, and has never mattered, whether the economy grew by 0.1 per cent, didn't grow, or shrank by 0.1 per cent. What is important is that Britain has stagnated for the better part of two years running now. Anaemic growth is just as bad as a mild recession – and in some ways worse, because while a recession may be expected to spring back into recovery at some point, stagnation can last for decades. Just ask Japan.
That's the reason I've focused on the description of our economy as "corrugated". We focus so much on the ups and downs, with cheers alternating on either side of the aisle, that we neglect to take a step back and look at what the overall trend is. The fact that the economy was precisely stagnant in the first quarter of 2012 doesn't change that trend for the better; it makes it overwhelmingly clear that stagnation remains the reality we live in.
Of course, some will claim that this revision matters anyway, because it means that we never had the technical recession which garnered so much bad press last year. But – you can guess where this is going – technical recessions are an alarmingly misleading thing to focus on in an economic environment like ours. Because, again, in a corrugated economy, whether a particular consecutive pair of quarters displays slightly negative growth is basically down to chance. What is not down to chance is the overall pattern.
Until and unless that flat black line stops being quite so astonishingly flat, there is little to celebrate. Arguing about the size of the kinks within it is little more than trivia.