Earlier this week I wrote that overly focusing on the prospect of a "triple dip" recession was blinding too many to the equally damaging prospect of continued stagnation. Maybe I was too specific; it seems that some are still focusing on the last recession (the one we now call the double-dip).
The Telegraph quotes the chief economist of Henderson Global Investors, Simon Ward, who argues that "Britain never had a double dip recession". Building on the recent upward revisions to the ONS' estimates of growth in 2012, Ward says that:
The “phantom” recessions reflected continuing weak North Sea oil and gas extraction and when that was stripped out, it revealed that there had never been a ‘double-dip’ in the UK onshore economy.
Mr Ward said North Sea oil production is supply-driven, and while it has been weak because of reserves depletion and unusual maintenance shutdowns, "these are of no relevance to the wider economy so it is reasonable to strip out the North Sea when assessing underlying trends".
Of course, if it's necessary to retrospectively strip out resource extraction from estimates of the economy, it's necessary to strip it out entirely. That would present a rather different view of, for instance, the economic competency of Margaret Thatcher, presiding over the original North Sea oil boom. It would also be a blow for advocates of fracking, as their desired resource boom would be excluded from the metrics.
As it is, the ONS already produces a metric for GDP growth excluding oil and gas (it's series KLH8, if you want to check it out). It only goes back to 1997, so we can't test the Thatcher proposition, but it's pretty clear that our oil and gas industries have been declining for quite some time. Every time they've had an effect since 2003, it's been negative, and even before then, it was rarely hugely positive. It's fair to say that, if ignoring resource extraction makes Osborne look economically competent, it makes Gordon Brown look like a genius chancellor, consistently achieving even more growth than he is already given credit for.
As it is, we don't strip out those industries unless we're making a very specific point, because they are part of the economy, and GDP is supposed to be a measure of the whole economy, not just the parts which are reflective of "underlying trends".
But again, this is all arguing a moot point. Even if we did strip out the effects of oil and gas extraction from the first quarter of 2012 only, thus ensuring that George Osborne avoided a technical recession by the narrowest margin possible, he would still have a terrible record on growth. The real world growth figures for our double dip were contractions of 0.3, 0.1 and 0.3 per cent respectively for Q4 2011 and Q1+2 2012. The figures Ward wants to use instead show a contraction of 0.2 per cent, then perfect stagnation, and then a contraction of 0.3 per cent.
In no world is 0 per cent growth (and, as I've said before, contraction in per capita GDP) between two quarters of contraction acceptable. Yet by focusing so heavily on the difference between -0.1 per cent and 0 per cent, Osborne and his defenders are able to claim that it's just a statistical quirk that gives him his bad reputation, rather than something far more intrinsic.