Recession deniers, it’s time to face up to the grim reality of UK plc

New Statesman
A sign outside a pawnbrokers offers pay day advances on November 28, 2011 in Rochdale. Photograph: Getty Images

The UK is in a double-dip recession. A few of us predicted it – an inevitable consequence of the coalition government’s suicidal economic policies – and I, for one, never failed to warn ministers, but to zero effect. Over the past six quarters, four of which have been negative, the UK economy has declined by 0.2 per cent; those four include the past two, which fulfils the technical criteria for a double dip.

George Osborne’s policies have produced growth in the UK lower than in Spain, which grew 0.2 per cent between Q4 2010 and Q1 2012. Osborne tried to stop us becoming like Greece, but instead he made us more like Spain. Under Alistair Darling, Osborne’s Labour predecessor as chancellor, the UK economy grew 3.2 per cent between Q3 2009 and Q3 2010, whereas Spain had zero growth. Moreover, this recession is of approximately the same depth as the Great Depression, which stretched over 12 quarters. Today, output is 4.3 per cent below the level at the beginning of the recession in 2008.

Dead horse

Keeping Osborne company are the recession deniers, that large crowd of assorted commentators who failed to call the double dip. Naturally, it’s easier to be with the pack and wrong than outside it and right. One weekend columnist insisted that the UK was not really in recession, basing his claims on evidence presented by Goldman Sachs, which forecast in December 2009 that UK GDP would grow by 3.4 per cent in 2011, against an outcome of 0.8 per cent. Even Goldman’s own Kevin Daly said that the numbers were “unbelievable”.

Another commentator, David Smith of the Sunday Times, couldn’t resist flogging a dead horse when he wrote in his 29 April column: “What can I say about Britain being ‘officially back in recession’? Apart from the fact that no quantity of salt is big enough to be applied to these preliminary estimates, I am not going to spend too much time on them.” And then he did. Meanwhile, Andrew Sentance continues to insist that the data will be revised upwards because that is what happened in 1992 and 1993, though it is unclear why that is relevant now.

It is true that there has been some positive economic news from business surveys such as various purchasing market indices and from the British Chambers of Commerce. Yet that has to be tempered by other findings, including the most recent Markit manufacturing PMI survey as well as the CBI Distributive Trades Survey and the Bank of England’s agents, none of which suggested a strengthening of the economy any time soon. Then there is the evidence of consumer confidence – or, rather, the lack of it. Despite the recent jump in the Nationwide Consumer Confidence Index, it is still in recession territory at 53, the same level it was at in November 2008.

The chart below is based on the European Union’s monthly survey. It plots an overall consumer confidence index, as well as specific attitudes to the financial situation and major purchases over the coming year. All three are at levels consistent with recession. Consumers will not spend if they are worried about the state of their finances, especially with continuing negative real wage growth.

Next, the revisions. Some people claim the preliminary estimates are untrustworthy because they are based on a sample. Yet the Office for National Statistics is pretty good at this stuff – the average alterations are very small. Over the past 20 years the average quarterly GDP revision has been just +0.1 per cent, mostly due to one-off factors. According to the ONS, the main reason for revisions is a change to the way that National Accounts tracks inflation, using the Consumer (rather than Retail) Prices Index measure of inflation. This did have an upward impact on GDP growth on average but it would be wrong, without knowing details of any proposed methodological changes and their impact, to assume that such revisions will be repeated.

Moreover, since 2008 the average revision has been a downward adjustment of 0.2 per cent. Take 2008 as a case in point: Q1 was revised down from 0.4 per cent to 0 per cent; Q2 from 0.2 per cent to -1.3 per cent; Q3 from -0.5 per cent to -2 per cent; and Q4 from -1.5 per cent to -2.3 per cent. In short, aggregate initial estimates of -1.4 per cent were revised down to -5.6 per cent. If this pattern was repeated over the most recent quarters – something that is far from implausible – we would find ourselves much deeper in recession.

The revisions matter because they altered the date the first recession began from Q3 2008 to Q2 2008, deepened it and moved back the date it ended, from Q2 2009 to Q3 2009. Maybe, if the Monetary Policy Committee had known this, it would have cut interest rates sooner. It is still possible the start date may move even earlier.

Imaginary lines

Forecasters have big problems with turning points. The latest estimates suggest there was positive GDP growth for 62 successive quarters from Q2 1992 onwards. Those predicting what was coming tended to extrapolate in a linear fashion, expecting to see more positives, and hence failed to spot the 2008 downturn.

How do Smith and the other recession deniers know that we are not at a downward turning point now? They don’t. I haven’t a clue where growth is supposed to come from under policies that have so clearly failed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next two quarters, at least, were worse than the recent two negative quarters.

In other words, it’s time to contemplate the possibility of several more quarters of negative growth. And what will be the new spur to investment, consumption and net trade? Answers in an email, George.

David Blanchflower is professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire