Consumers to the rescue (or not)

When you are next in town shopping, just keep in mind that consumer spending accounts for a little over 60 per cent of GDP. Therefore, consumption is incredibly important to the economy. How consumers behave is crucial to our short-term economic growth. The second estimate of British growth from the Office for National Statistics shows that the economy expanded by 0.3 per cent in the first three months of 2013. This follows a 0.3 per cent decline in the final quarter of 2012. Real household expenditure rose by just 0.1 per cent in Q1 2013. However, this was the sixth consecutive quarter in which the volume of purchases by households has grown.

The growth in the economy is measured by changes in real GDP. Chart 1 shows the quarter-to-quarter change in real GDP since Q1 2008. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). During this period the economy is thought to have contracted in 10 of the 21 quarters shown. Furthermore, they show a double-dip recession and so two periods in close proximity where output shrank for two or more quarters. While more recent output numbers are frequently revised, which could see the double-dip recession possibly ‘statistically wiped’ from history, the period since 2008 will always been one characterised by anemic growth. The average quarterly growth rate since Q1 2008 has been -0.12 per cent.

Chart 2 shows from Q1 2008 the quarterly growth in household expenditure in real terms, i.e. after stripping the effect of consumer price inflation. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Over the period, the volume of household consumption has typically fallen by 0.18 per cent per quarter. Hence, consumption has feared a little worse than the economy has a whole.

While the annualised rate of growth for the economy since Q1 2008 has averaged -0.47 per cent that for consumer spending has averaged -0.73 per cent. However, these figures disguise a recent improvement in consumer spending growth. This is because the volume of consumption has in fact grown in each of the six quarters since Q4 2011. In contrast, the economy has grown in only 2 of these quarters. It is, of course, much too early to start trumpeting consumption growth has heralding better times, not least because the 0.1 per cent growth in Q1 2013 is the weakest number since positive consumption growth resumed at the back end of 2011. Nonetheless, the figures do deserve some analysis by economists to understand what is going on.

A slightly less promising note is struck by the gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) numbers. These numbers relate to the volume of investment in non-financial fixed assets, such as machinery, buildings, office space and fixtures and fittings. Chart 3 shows the quarterly growth in the volume of GFCF since Q1 2008. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). The average quarterly rate of growth over this period has been -0.77 per cent. This is equivalent to an annual rate of decline of 3.9 per cent. GFCF has risen in only 7 of these quarters, declining in the remaining 14 quarters.

Worryingly, gross fixed capital formation has decreased in each of the last three quarters. While these figures may reflect continuing difficulties encountered by businesses in obtaining finance, they may also point to lingering concerns within the business community about the prospects for sustained growth. Therefore, it is important for economists to try and understand the drivers of these disappointing investment numbers and, hence, whether it is these or the slightly better consumption numbers that best hint at our short-term economic prospects.


Second estimate of GDP, Q1 2013 Office for National Statistics
Second Estimate of GDP, Q1 2013 Dataset Office for National Statistics


UK GDP: concerns about underlying economy as 0.3pc growth confirmed Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/5/13)
UK investment fall among worst in G8 Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/5/13)
UK first-quarter growth unchanged BBC News (28/5/13)
U.K. Economy Grows 0.3% on Inventories, Consumer Spending Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (23/5/13)
Surge in consumer spending kept UK out of recession The Telegraph (28/5/13)
Boost in service sector activity The Herald, Greig Cameron (28/5/13)
Hopes dashed as household spending rises by just 0.1% The Herald, Ian McConnell (24/5/13)


  1. Why do we typically focus on real GDP rather than nominal GDP when analysing economic growth?
  2. What is meant by aggregate demand? Of what importance is consumer spending to aggregate demand?
  3. Why might the patterns we observe in consumer spending differ from those in other components of aggregate demand?
  4. What factors might influence the determination of consumer spending?
  5. What do you understand by gross fixed capital formation? What factors might help to explain how its level is determined?
  6. Of what significance is gross fixed capital formation for aggregate demand and for aggregate supply?
  7. What is a recession? What is a double-dip recession?
  8. What data would you need to collect to identify a recession?