In our blog How sustainable is UK consumer spending? we considered concerns of some commentators that consumer spending was growing unduly quickly given the absence of any sustained growth in disposable income. The Second Estimate of GDP, Q2 2013 reports that the economy grew by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of the year, with household expenditure growing by 0.4 per cent.
Because household spending makes up about two-thirds of aggregate demand in the UK it is important to keep an eye on it. The latest figures show that the real value of consumer spending by British households has risen in each quarter since 2011 Q4. In other words, the volume of household purchases has risen for seven consecutive quarters. Over the period, the growth in real consumer spending has averaged 0.4 per cent per quarter.
The chart helps to demonstrate the stark turnaround in the growth in consumer spending. Over the period from 2008 Q1 to 2011 Q3, real consumer spending typically fell by 0.4 per cent each quarter. As we noted in our previous blog, this was a period when the global financial system was in distress, with the availability of credit severely dampened, but also a period when households were concerned about their own financial balances and the future prospects for growth. Over the same period, real GDP typically fell by a little under 0.3 per cent each quarter. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The real value of consumer spending has yet to return to its 2007 Q4 peak (£242 billion at 2010 prices). In 2013 Q2 the real value of consumer spending is estimated still to be 3 per cent below this level (£235 billion at 2010 prices). These figures are mirrored by the economy at large. Real GDP peaked in 2008 Q1 (£393 billion at 2010 prices). Despite the back-to-back quarterly increases in real GDP of 0.3 per cent in Q1 and 0.7 per cent in Q2, output in 2013 Q2 (£380 billion at 2010 prices) remains 3.2 per cent below the 2008 Q1 peak.
While real consumption values are below their 2007 Q4 peak, the concern is whether current rates of growth in consumer spending are sustainable. In particular, should this growth cause the household sector financial distress there would be real pain for the economy further down the line. Some commentators argue that the latest GDP figures are consistent with a more balanced recovery. In Q2 economic growth was supported too by other parts of the economy. For instance, we saw a 3.6 per cent rise in export volumes and a 1.7 per cent rise in gross fixed capital formation (i.e. investment expenditure).
Nonetheless, it is the protracted period over which consumer spending has been growing robustly that concerns some economists. Hence, we will need to continue to monitor the growth in all components of aggregate demand and, in particular, changes in household consumption, income, saving and borrowing.
Second Estimate of GDP, Q2 2013 Dataset Office for National Statistics
UK economic growth revised up to 0.7% BBC News, (23/8/13)
UK GDP revised up to 0.7pc in second quarter: reaction Telegraph, (23/8/13)
UK rallying faster than thought as exports leap boosts GDP Independent, Russell Lynch and Ben Chu (24/8/13)
UK economy expanding faster than first thought, GDP revision shows Guardian, Heather Stewart (23/8/13)
Growth upgrade points to ‘sustainable’ recovery Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/8/13)
UK wages decline among worst in Europe BBC News, (11/8/13)
Squeezing the hourglass The Economist, (10/8/13)
UK first-quarter growth unchanged BBC News, (28/5/13)
Summer heatwave triggers shopping spree in ‘Wongaland’ economy Telegraph, Steve Hawkes and Steven Swinford (15/8/13)
Retail sales data better than expected as UK economy enjoys summer bounce Guardian, Heather Stewart (15/8/13)
Mark Carney is banking on you to keep spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (10/8/13)
NIESR upgrades UK economy but warns on consumer spending Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/13)
Consumers ‘expect better economy’ Belfast Telegraph, (4/8/13)
- Explain what you understand by a ‘sustainable’ economic recovery.
- What are the expenditure components that make up Aggregate Demand?
- Explain what you understand by consumption smoothing.
- Why would we would typically expect consumption growth to be less variable than that in disposable income?
- Would we expect consumption growth to always be less variable than that in disposable income? Explain your answer.
- What impact do you think the financial crisis has had on consumer behaviour?
- To what extent do you think the current growth in consumer spending is sustainable?
- How important are expectations in determining consumer behaviour?
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)
- Why do we typically focus on real GDP rather than nominal GDP when analysing economic growth?
- What is meant by aggregate demand? Of what importance is consumer spending to aggregate demand?
- Why might the patterns we observe in consumer spending differ from those in other components of aggregate demand?
- What factors might influence the determination of consumer spending?
- What do you understand by gross fixed capital formation? What factors might help to explain how its level is determined?
- Of what significance is gross fixed capital formation for aggregate demand and for aggregate supply?
- What is a recession? What is a double-dip recession?
- What data would you need to collect to identify a recession?
The second estimate of UK output for Q1 2010 from the Office for National Statistics reports that the economy grew by 0.3%. The first estimate, based on limited data, put growth in Q1 at 0.2%. But, it appears that more recently available data picked up evidence of stronger growth in the latter stages of the quarter, particularly in the production industries, such as manufacturing, as well as in capital spending by firms.
When analysed in terms of the composition of demand for our firms’ goods and services, there has been something of a rebound in investment expenditure. This follows a marked collapse during 2008 and the first half of 2009. In 2010 Q1 investment volumes increased by 4.2% on the back of a 2.4% rise in the last quarter of 2009.
This rebound in the investment figures across the last two quarters has partly been driven by firms running down their stockpiles of finished goods at a considerably slower rate. When firms build up their stocks of inventories for sales in future periods they are deemed to be engaging in investment. When firms then ‘tap into’ these inventories, as they have been since Q4 2008, they are disinvesting. It is now the case that the pace of disinvestment through running down inventories is slowing. This reflects a pick up in the demand for firms’ goods and services and, hopefully, an expectation of stronger future demand.
More encouragingly, the rebound in investment volumes in Q1 also reflected an increase in gross fixed capital formation, i.e. an increase in the purchase of non-financial fixed assets used in production, such as machinery. Gross fixed capital formation increased in Q1 by 1.5%. This was the first quarter since Q2 2008 in which there has been an increase in the volume of capital purchases by firms. Again, this is likely to reflect increased optimism about future demand since these assets are purchased to do one thing – to produce goods and services!
The improvement in the investment numbers is such that the volume of investment in Q1 2010 was 0.6% higher than it was in Q1 2009. This is largely the impact of a slower rate of disinvestment by firms through running down inventories since despite the rise in gross capital formation in Q1 2010 it still came in 5.7% lower than in Q1 2009. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the recent improvement in the UK’s investment numbers is maintained as we go forward.
Of particular concern is whether the volume of capital purchases can continue to grow. Can these purchases help to both boost growth now and our economy’s potential output in the medium term? Some of the key issues in determining the answer to this are likely to include: (i) the extent to which aggregate demand grows; (ii) the impact of fiscal consolidation measures on both firms and consumers; (iii) sentiment (confidence) across firms – especially of their own medium-term prospects; and (iv) the ability of firms to access credit from financial institutions. One can undoubtedly add many other issues to this list. One thing is for sure, these are very uncertain times indeed!
The economy: GDP growth revised up The Times, Grainne Gilmore (26/5/10)
Manufacturing pushes up economic growth The Independent, Sarah Arnott (26/5/10)
UK economic growth revised up to 0.3% BBC News (25/5/10) )
Economy tracker: GDP BBC News (25/5/10)
Boost for UK as GDP growth revised up Telegraph, Edmund Conway (25/5/10)
UK GDP growth revised upwards to 0.3% Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (25/5/10)
UK first-quarter GDP revised higher Wall Street Journal, Natasha Brereton (25/5/10)
Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (25/5/10)
UK output, income and expenditure, Statistical Bulletin, 1st Quarter 2010 Office for National Statistics (25/5/10)
UK Output, Income and Expenditure, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission
- Why do the National Accounts record a positive change in inventories as investment and a negative change in inventories as disinvestment?
- What factors might explain the running down of inventories across firms in the UK since Q4 2008? Why didn’t this start in Q2 2008 when the UK economy went into recession?
- In Q1 2010 the running down of inventories was worth, at 2005 prices, some £1.347 billion. This was considerably less than the £4.883 billion in Q3 2009 and the £2.596 billion in Q4 2009 (again at 2005 prices). Why might the pace of disinvestment be slowing?
- Of what importance do you think, firstly, the change in inventories and, secondly, gross capital fixed formation are for an economy’s potential output?
- What arguments do you think there are for distinguishing between different types of investment goods and services when considering our future economic growth?