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A balancing act

There’s some good news and some bad news about the UK economy. The good news is that there are signs that the recovery is gathering momentum; the ‘green shoots’ are growing bigger. The bad news is that it’s the ‘wrong type of growth’!

One of the main underlying problems of the 2008 financial crisis was that household debt had been increasing to unsustainable levels, egged on by banks only too willing to lend, whether as personal loans, on credit cards or through mortgages. When the recession hit, many people sought to reduce their debts by cutting back on spending. This further fuelled the recession.

What the government and most economists hoped was that there would be some rebalancing of the economy, with less reliance on consumer spending to drive economic growth. Instead it was hoped that growth would be driven by a rise in investment and exports. Indeed, the 25% depreciation of sterling exchange between 2007 and 2009 was seen as a major advantage as this would boost the demand for exports and encourage firms to invest in the export sector.

But things haven’t turned out the way people hoped. The recession (or lack of growth) has been much deeper and more prolonged than previous downturns in the economy. Today, real GDP per head is more than 7% below the level in 2007 and many people have seen much bigger declines in their living standards.

But also, despite the austerity policies, the economy has not been ‘rebalanced’ towards exports and investment. Exports are 3% lower than in 2006 (although they did grow between 2009 Q2 and 2011 Q1, but have since stagnated). And investment is 27% lower than in 2006. Household consumption, however, has grown by about 2% and general government consumption by around 9% since 2006. The chart shows the figures, based on 2006 Q1 = 100.
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

And recent evidence is that consumption is beginning to grow faster – not because of rising household incomes, but because of falling saving rates. In 2008, the household saving ratio had fallen to nearly 0% (i.e. households were on average saving about the same as they were borrowing). Then the saving ratio rose dramatically as people reined in their spending. Between 2009 and 2012, the ratio hovered around 7%. But in the first quarter of 2013, it had fallen to 4.2%

So the good news is that aggregate demand is rising, boosting economic growth. But the bad news is that, at least for the time being, this growth is being driven by a rise in household borrowing and a fall in household saving. The videos and articles consider whether this is, however, still good news on balance.

Britain’s imbalanced economy The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes and Richard Davies (4/7/13)
Britain’s Export Drought: an enduring disappointment The Economist, Andrew Palmer and Richard Davies (9/2/13)
‘Green shoots’ of economic recovery in Rugby BBC News, Paul Mason (12/6/13)

Is the UK economy seeing the ‘wrong kind’ of green shoots? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (3/7/13)
The export drought: Better out than in The Economist (9/2/13)
Exports and the economy: Made in Britain The Economist (21/1/12)
The economy: On a wing and a credit card The Economist (6/7/13)
Unbalanced and unsustainable – this is the wrong kind of growth The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (8/7/13)
The UK economy’s looking up – but no one’s told manufacturers The Guardian, Heather Stewart (10/7/13)

Quarterly National Accounts, Q1 2013 (27/6/13)
Forecasts for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts HM Treasury (June 2013)
ISM Manufacturing Report on Business® PMI History Institute for Supply Management


  1. What are forecasters expecting to happen to economic growth in the coming months? Why?
  2. What factors determine investment? Why has it fallen so substantially in the UK?
  3. Explain what is meant by the ‘accelerator’. Is the rise in consumption likely to lead to an accelerator effect and, if so, what will determine the size of this effect?
  4. Why have exports not grown more rapidly despite the depreciation of sterling after 2007?
  5. What will determine the rate of potential economic growth in the UK economy? How will a rise in real GDP driven by a rise in consumption impact on potential GDP and potential economic growth?
  6. What supply-side policies would you recommend, and why, in order to increase potential economic growth?
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