Tag: Real GDP

We know two things about economic growth in a developed economy like the UK: it is positive over the longer term, but highly volatile in the short term. We can refer to these two facts as the twin characteristics of growth. The volatility of growth sees occasional recessions, i.e. two or more consecutive quarters of declining output. Since 1973, the UK has experienced six recessions.

Here we consider in a little more detail the growth numbers for the UK from the latest Quarterly National Accounts, focusing on the depth and duration of these six recessions. How do they compare?

The latest figures on British economic growth show that the UK economy grew by 0.9 per cent in the third quarter of 2012. However, when compared with the third quarter of 2011, output was essentially unchanged. This means that the annual rate of growth was zero. Perhaps even more telling is that output (real GDP) in Q3 2012 was still 3.0 per cent below its Q1 2008 level.

The chart helps to put the recent output numbers into an historical context. It shows both the quarter-to-quarter changes in real GDP (right-hand axis) and the level of output as measured by GDP at constant 2009 prices (left-hand axis). It captures nicely the twin characteristics of growth. Since 1970, the average rate of growth each quarter has been 0.6 per cent. This is equivalent to an average rate of growth of 2.35 per cent per year. The chart also allows us to pin-point periods of recessions.

One way of comparing recessions is to compare their ‘2 Ds’: depth and duration. The table shows the number of quarters each of the six recessions since 1973 lasted. It also shows how much smaller the economy was by the end of each recession. In other words, it shows the depth of each recession as measured by the percentage reduction in output (real GDP).

British recessions

Duration (quarters) Depth (output lost, %)
1973Q3–74Q1 3 3.25
1975Q2–75Q3 2 1.76
1980Q1–81Q1 5 4.63
1990Q3–91Q3 5 2.93
2008Q2–09Q2 5 6.28
2011Q4–12Q2 3 0.90

We can see that three of the recessions lasted for five quarters. In the case of the recessions starting in 1975 and 2011 they occurred very shortly after a previous recession. Hence, we observe two so-called double-dip recessions.

The table reveals that the deepest recession by some distance was that in the late 2000s. As a result of this recession, UK output declined by 6.3 per cent. As the recent GDP numbers show, the UK has yet to recover the ‘lost output’ that followed the financial crisis.


Quarterly National Accounts Time Series Dataset Q3 2012 Office for National Statistics
Statistical Bulletin: Quarterly National Accounts Q3 2012 Office for National Statistics


UK economic growth less than expected Sky News UK(21/12/12)
GDP growth revised down to 0.9% Financial Times, Claire Jones (21/12/12)
Uk borrowing higher than expected as GDP revised down BBC News (21/12/12)


  1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which of these helps to track changes in economic output?
  2. Looking at the chart above, summarise the key patterns in real GDP since the 1970s.
  3. What is a recession? What is a double-dip recession?
  4. Looking at the table, rank the recessions from 1973 by the amount of lost output.
  5. Can a recession occur if nominal GDP is actually rising? Explain your answer.
  6. What factors might result in economic growth being so variable?

Just how large is the UK’s Gross Domestic Product and how quickly is it growing? Well, the latest Quarterly National Accounts from the Office for National Statistics show that the value of our economy’s output in Q3 2010 was £365.9 million. When measured across the latest four quarters, i.e. from the start of Q4 2009 to the end of Q3 2010, the total value of our economy’s output was £1.440 trillion. Across calendar year 2009 the UK’s GDP is estimated to have been £1.394 trillion.

When analysed in terms of the expenditure on the goods and services produced in the latest four quarters, household final consumption contributed £910.4 billion towards Gross Domestic Product. In other words, household expenditure over these four quarters was equivalent to 63% of GDP, exactly in line with its average since 1948. This only serves to demonstrate just how important the spending by households is for our short-term economic prospects.

Another important expenditure-component of GDP is gross capital formation. This is capital expenditure by the private and public sector and is estimated to have been £202.9 billion over the latest four quarters, equivalent to 14% of GDP. This is an important component because as well as affecting current levels of GDP, it also affects our economy’s potential output. This points to changes in capital expenditure having both a demand-side and a supply-side impact. Interestingly, the long-term average share for gross capital formation in GDP is around 18% and so about 4 percentage points higher than is currently the case.

So we now have a number which reflects the size of our economy: a little over £1.4 trillion. But, what about the rate at which the economy is growing? This time we have to be a little careful as to which GDP numbers we are using. The numbers we have so far considered have been measured at current prices and so at prevailing prices. When analysing the rate of economic growth, rather than analyse GDP at current prices, economists look at GDP at constant prices. By doing this we can immediately see whether the volume of output has increased. This is important because in the presence of price rises, an increase in the value of output could occur even if the volume of output remained unchanged or actually fell. For instance, in 1974 the volume of output or real GDP fell by 1.3%, but because the average price of our domestic output (known as the GDP deflator) rose by 14.8%, GDP measured at current prices rose by nearly 13½%.

The latest ONS figures show that real GDP grew by 0.7% in the third quarter 2010. For the record, GDP at current prices (nominal GDP) grew by 0.9%. The 0.7% increase in GDP in volume terms is down on the 1.1% figure for Q2. While this appears to constitute a reasonable rate of economic growth we can see from the articles below the concern amongst commentators that this third estimate of growth for Q3 had seen a downward revision from the previous estimates of 0.8%. Nonetheless, when compared with Q3 2009, the output of the UK economy in Q3 2010 is estimated to have grown by 2.7%. This is the strongest annual rate of economic growth since the third quarter of 2007.

Despite its relatively low historic share of GDP, gross capital formation was the most rapidly growing expenditure component in Q3, increasing by 5.2% over the quarter and by 16.6% over the latest four quarters. Household spending grew by 0.3% over the quarter and by 2% over the latest four quarters. Meanwhile, government final consumption, i.e. those government purchases not classified as capital expenditures, fell by 0.4% over the quarter and by 1.3% over the latest four quarters. Finally, the volume of exports rose by 1.5% over the quarter and by 7.5% over the latest four quarters, but the volume of imports increased more rapidly rising by 1.7% over the quarter and by 10.3% over the latest four quarters. This has contributed to a UK trade deficit from the start of Q4 2009 to the end of Q3 2010 of a little over £40.5 billion.


UK recovery weaker than first thought, official data shows Telegraph, Emma Rowley and Philip Aldrick (23/12/10)
Service sector output dips Financial Times, Chris Giles (23/12/10)
UK’s official economic growth estimates revised down Guardian, Graeme Wearden (22/12/10)
UK economic growth revised down BBC News (22/12/10)
Economic growth weaker than thought Press Association (22/12/10)
UK economic growth in 3rd quarter revised downward Bloomberg, Robert Barr (22/10/12)
Economic growth ‘is lower than we thought’ admits ONS Scotsman, Natalie Thomas (23/12/10)
UK GDP growth: analysts view of the revised data Telegraph (22/12/10)


Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (22/12/10)
Quarterly National Accounts, 3rd Quarter 2010 Office for National Statistics (22/12/10)
UK Economic Accounts, 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


  1. What do you understand by the terms nominal GDP and real GDP?
  2. Can you think of any other contexts in which we might wish to distinguish between nominal and real changes?
  3. The following are the estimates of GDP at constant 2006 prices:
    Q3 2009= £322.655bn, Q2 2010= £328.881bn, Q3 2010= £331.222bn
    Show how you would calculate both the quarterly rate of change and the annual rate of change for Q3 2010.
  4. What would happen to our estimates of the level of constant–price GDP in (3) if the base year for prices was 1986 rather than 2006? What would happen to the quarterly and annual growth rates you calculated? Explain your answer.
  5. Explain how gross capital formation could have both demand-side and supply-side effects on the economy? How significant do you think such supply-side effects can be?
  6. How important for short-term economic growth do you think household spending is? What factors do you think will be important in affecting household spending in the months ahead?

In the UK, we have an inflation target of 2% and it’s the Bank of England’s job to use monetary policy, in particular interest rates, to keep inflation within 1 percentage point of its target. However, with rising commodity prices and the onset of recession back in 2008, interest rates had another objective: to prevent or at least lessen the recession. Bank Rate fell to 0.5% and there it has remained in a bid to encourage investment, discourage saving and increase consumption, as a means of stimulating the economy.

However, at such a low rate, interest rates are not acting as a brake on inflation, which is now well above target. This rise in inflation, has been largely brought about by cost-push factors, such as the restoration of the 17.5% VAT (up from the temporary 15%), higher oil and commodity prices, and a fall in the exchange rate. But part of the reason might be found in the increase in money supply that resulted from quantitative easing.

There are concerns that the UK may lose its credibility on inflation if action isn’t taken. The OECD has advised the Bank of England to raise Bank Rate to 3.5% by the end of 2011. The following articles consider this issue.


Time to worry about inflation? BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (28/5/10)
UK must not fall for the false promise of higher inflation Telegraph, Charles Bean, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England (4/6/10)

Reports and documents
General Assessment of the Macroeconomic Situation OECD Economic Outlook, No. 87 Chapter 1 (see especially pages 53–4) (May 2010)
United Kingdom – Country Summary OECD Economic Outlook, No. 87 (May 2010)
Statistical Annex OECD Economic Outlook, No. 87 (available 10/6/10)
Inflation Report portal Bank of England (see May 2010)


  1. Explain the relationship between interest rates and inflation. Why have such low interest rates caused inflation to increase?
  2. In 2008, the UK moved into recession, but was also suffering from inflation. This was unusual, as AD/AS analysis suggests that when aggregate demand falls, growth will fall, but so will prices. What can explain the low growth and inflation we saw in 2008?
  3. What is the difference between real and nominal GDP?
  4. What are the causes of the current high inflation and what solutions are available and viable?
  5. Why are expectations of inflation so important and how might they influence the Bank of England’s plans for interest rates?
  6. Do you think the OECD should have advised the Bank of England? Will there be any adverse effects internationally if the UK doesn’t heed the OECD’s advice?
  7. Is the OECD’s assessment of the UK in the above Country Summary consistent with its view on UK interest rates contained in pages 53 and 54 in the first OECD link?

The Quarterly National Accounts from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that the output of the UK economy grew by 0.4% in the fourth quarter of 2009. This is another upward revision to the growth number for Q4; the first estimate put growth at 0.1% and the second estimate at 0.3%.

The ONS release also reported the value of the UK economy’s output in calendar year 2009. In the release, GDP in 2009 is estimated at £1.396 trillion. Now, this is what economists call the nominal estimate because it measures the economy’s output using the prevailing prices, e.g. in the case of output in 2009, the prices of 2009. Of course, the problem arises when we compare nominal GDP – or GDP at current prices – over time. If prices are changing how can we know whether the volume of output is actually rising or falling? Therefore, constant-price or real estimates are reported which aim to show what GDP would have been if prices had remained at their levels in some chosen year (the base year). The base year currently used in the UK is 2005.

If we look at nominal GDP estimates for the UK from 1948 up to 2008 we find that they rise each year. So, regardless of the fact that in some of these years output volumes fell, price rises (inflation) have been sufficient to cause nominal or current-price GDP to rise. But, this was not true in 2009!

But, why did nominal GDP fall in 2009? Well, firstly, the average price of the economy’s output, which is measured by the GDP deflator, rose by only 1.36% in 2009. This was the lowest rate of economy-wide inflation since 1999 (although real GDP or output rose by 3.9% in 1999). And, secondly, in 2009 output fell by 4.9%. The extent of the fall in output meant that price increases were not sufficient for nominal GDP to rise. In fact, the actual value of GDP in 2008 was £1.448 trillion as compared with £1.396 trillion in 2009. This means that nominal GDP fell by 3.6% in 2009. The next lowest recorded change, since comparable figures began in 1948, was actually in 2008 when nominal GDP rose by 3.5% (real GDP rose too in 2009, albeit by only 0.5%).

So, in short, the decline in both nominal and real GDP in 2009 indicates just how deep the economic downturn has been.


Britain’s economic growth revised up to 0.4% The Times, Gary Parkinson and Grainne Gilmore (30/3/10)
UK pulls out of recession faster than thought Reuters, Matt Falloon and Christina Fincher (30/3/10)
UK growth unexpectedly revised up to 0.4% BBC News (30/3/10) )
UK Q4 growth revised upward again to 0.4 pct Associated Press (AP), Jane Wardell (30/3/10)
Instant view – Q4 final GDP revised up to 0.4 per cent Reuters UK (30/3/10)


Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (30/3/10)
Quarterly National Accounts, Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (30/3/10)
United Kingdom Economic Accounts, 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


  1. Explain what you understand by the terms ‘nominal GDP’ and ‘real GDP’. Can you think of other examples of where economists might distinguish between nominal and real variables?
  2. Explain under what circumstances nominal GDP could rise despite the output of the economy falling.
  3. The average annual change in nominal GDP since 1948 is 8.2% while that for real GDP is 2.4%. What do you think we can learn from each of these figures about long-term economic growth in the UK?
  4. What do you understand to be the difference between short-term and long-run economic growth? Where, in the commentary above, is there reference to short-term growth?