The 2 Ds of British recessions

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?