Fragile and patchy – British economic growth in 2013

In The global economy we note the mixed picture contained within the latest British growth numbers. With the first estimate of growth for Q1 of 2013 pointing to an increase in real GDP of 0.3 per cent, the UK economy appears to have missed the ignominy of a triple dip recession. However, the overall economy remains fragile with different sectors of the economy performing quite differently.

A patchy picture is perhaps the fairest assessment. This helps to explain the quite different perceptions amongst economists, business people, journalists and the wider public about the current state of the economy. Here we consider in a little more detail the growth numbers for the UK from the latest preliminary GDP estimates. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).

The British economy is thought to have grown by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2013. This follows a contraction of 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2012. Compared with the first quarter of 2012, the output of the British economy was 0.6 per cent higher. However, as Chart 2 helps to show, the British economy has some way to go before it returns to the levels seen prior to the financial crisis. Real GDP peaked in the first quarter of 2008 when GDP at 2009 prices was estimated at £372.7 billion. In the first quarter of 2013, GDP at constant 2009 prices is estimated at £362.9 billion. This means that the economy is still 2.6 per cent smaller than its 2008-peak. Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.

The patchy nature of British growth is illustrated nicely by the contrasting rates of growth across the different industrial sectors in the first quarter of the year. While service sector output rose by 0.6 per cent, output across the production industries rose by only 0.2 per cent and agricultural output declined by 3.7 per cent. Within the production industries, mining and quarrying output rose by 3.2 per cent, but manufacturing output shrunk by 0.3 per cent and construction output shrunk by 2.5 per cent.

Chart 3 compares the output of agriculture, the production industries and the service sector between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2013. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the Chart). It shows the dramatically different experience of the service sector compared with agriculture and the production industries. While output in the service sector is now 0.8 per cent higher, output across agriculture and the production industries is almost 13.5 per cent lower. Within the production industries, output in mining and quarrying is 38 per cent lower, in the construction sector 19 per cent lower and 10 per cent lower in manufacturing. It is perhaps not surprising then that we get such different messages about the state of the economy. The devil really is in the detail.


Preliminary Estimate of GDP – Time Series Dataset Q1 2013 Office for National Statistics
Statistical Bulletin: Gross Domestic Product Preliminary Estimate Q1 2013 Office for National Statistics


UK avoids triple-dip recession with better-than-expected 0.3% GDP growth Guardian, Heather Stewart (25/4/13)
UK economy shows 0.3% growth Financial Times, Claire Jones (25/4/13)
UK avoids triple-dip recession with 0.3pc GDP growth Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (25/4/13)
Osborne claims UK economy is ‘healing’ Financial Times, George Parker and Claire Jones (25/4/13)
UK narrowly escapes triple-dip recession as GDP figures show 0.3% growth in first three months of year Independent, Ben Chu (25/4/13)
UK economy avoids triple-dip recession BBC News (25/4/13)


  1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which of these helps to track changes in economic output?
  2. How would we identify a recession in either of the first two charts?
  3. What is a double-dip recession? What is a triple-dip recession?
  4. The UK economy in Q1 2013 was 2.6 per cent smaller than in Q1 2008. What factors do you think help explain why after 5 years UK real GDP is still lower?
  5. Why if output in the production and agricultural sectors is 13.5 per cent lower in Q1 2013 compared to Q1 2008 is the economy’s total output only 2.6 per cent lower?
  6. Economic growth rates fluctuate quite significantly. Can economic theory help to explain why this is the case?