The ONS has released the preliminary estimates for GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2012: it fell by 0.3 per cent. That's worse than the OBR/Treasury's forecast of a 0.1 per cent contraction, but the Treasury says the news was "not unexpected".
The OBR will be able to defend its record somewhat, because 0.2 percentage points of the contraction are due to a significant reduction in oil and gas extraction. The ONS explains that this is resulting from "an extended and later than usual maintenance period at the UK’s largest North Sea oil field". Expect a number of commentators to rapidly become experts on North Sea oil, and why the shock should or shouldn't let the chancellor off the hook.
Nonetheless, this represents the only the latest time the OBR has been overly optimistic about GDP projections. Economic forecasts are usually wrong; but they are usually wrong symmetrically. The persistent bias — mathematically, that is — must eventually raise questions about the OBR's model.
The hit to oil extraction led to mining output falling by 10.2 per cent in the quarter, the biggest decline on record, and led to the production sector overall falling by 1.8 per cent — a contraction which was exacerbated by the continued steady contraction in manufacturing, down 1.5 per cent.
The news was less bad in other sectors, but agriculture, forestry and fishing experienced still a contraction of 0.6 per cent, while the service sector was flat. Some of that stagnation in services may be due to some "fall-back" following the Olympic games, as the impact of spending being concentrated on one period comes back to bite. The one top-level sector which experienced growth was construction, where output increased by 0.3 per cent.
The overall contraction presents the strong possibility that the UK is going to have a "triple-dip" recession, if the next quarter is negative as well. Such a sustained period of bouncing between recession and mere stagnation would be unprecedented in recent economic history. Even if we don't have a triple-dip, growth for the whole of 2012 remains exactly flat, and there are no high expectations for growth going in to 2013. We have a corrugated economy, going up and back down periodically, but with a clear — and terrifying — trend of stagnation.