The long and short of UK GDP

Economic growth in developed countries, like the UK, exhibits two important characteristics. First, growth is positive over the long run such that the volume of output increases over time. Second, growth in the short-term is highly variable with patterns in the volume of output creating business cycles. With increased global interdependence through trade and integrated financial systems, domestic business cycles often resemble a global or international business cycle. This was certainly the case during the late 2000s. Recent releases from the Office for National Statistics provide an opportunity to look again at the characteristics of UK economic growth. In particular, they show the importance of differentiating between nominal and real values. Furthermore, revisions to the data have somewhat revised our view of economic growth before and after the economic crisis of the late 2000s.

The value of goods and services produced in the UK in 2010, as measured by GDP, is estimated at £1.46 trillion. This is the nominal GDP estimate because it measures the economy’s output for 2010 using the prices of 2010. Back in 1948, GDP measured at 1948 prices was £11.97 billion. Based on these nominal estimates the size of the UK economy would appear to have grown some 122 times which is the equivalent of growing by 8.1 per cent each year. However, some of this increase relates not to the volume of output but to the prices of the goods and services produced. It is for this reason that when analysing economic growth we ordinarily look at constant-price or real estimates of GDP. Such estimates effectively show what GDP would have been if prices had remained at the levels of a chosen year known as the base year. The base year now being used in the UK is 2008.

GDP at constant 2008 prices in 2010 is estimated at £1.40 trillion as compared with £314.5 billion in 1948. The real GDP figures reveal that the volume of UK output increased not by a factor of 122 but by a factor of 4.44; this is the equivalent to growth of 2.4 per cent each year.

The nominal GDP estimates for each year from 1948 up to 2010 rise with only one exception: 2009. In 2009, nominal GDP fell by 2.8 per cent. However, over the same period, real GDP fell during seven of the years. What this tells us, is that in six of the seven years, price increases were enough to offset falls in the volume of output such that nominal GDP increased. However, in 2009, the average price of the economy’s output, which is measured by the GDP deflator, rose by a just a little under 1.7 per cent, while the volume of output and, hence, real GDP, fell by almost 4.4 per cent.

The real annual GDP numbers estimate that the volume of UK output declined both in 2008 and 2009. In 2008 output is thought to have fallen by 1.1 per cent, while in 2009, as we have just seen, it fell by 4.4 per cent. The last time the UK experienced two consecutive annual (yearly) falls in output was in 1980 and 1981 when output fell by 2.1 per cent and 1.3 per cent respectively.

If we want to identify recessions then yearly GDP numbers will not do, rather, we need to use quarterly GDP numbers. This is because we are looking for two consecutive quarters where real GDP (output) declined. The revised GDP data show that the UK experienced five consecutive quarterly falls in real GDP in the late 2000s. We went into recession in Q2 of 2008 and came out in Q3 of 2009. As a result, real GDP was 7 per cent lower than before the UK economy entered recession. The previous recession, from Q3 of 1990 to Q3 of 1991 (5 quarters), saw UK output fall by 2.5 per cent. Between these two recessions the UK experienced 66 consecutive quarters of economic growth during which time the revised estimates show that the average annual rate of growth was 3 per cent. Compared with the recession of 2008/09, the next deepest recession in recent times occurred between Q1 of 1980 and Q1 of 1981 (5 quarters) when output fell by 4.7 per cent. In other words, these figures help to illustrate the extraordinary depth of the 2008/9 recession.


QE plus Economist (8/10/11)
Cameron steadfast as economy halts Sky News Australia, Matt Falloon and Christina Fincher (6/10/11)
Recession was deeper and recovery slower than expected Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (31/10/11) )
Mr Cameron, GDP and the hole in the recovery BBC News, Stephanie Flanders, (5/10/11)
UK economy grinds to virtual halt AFP (5/10/11) )
Recession concern as economy fails to grown Herald Scotland, Ian McConnell (5/10/11)


Quarterly National Accounts, Q2 2011 Office for National Statistics (5/10/11)
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?
  5. What is meant by the concept of a business cycle? In what ways can the characteristics of business cycles differ across time? What about across countries?
  6. How might the position within the business cycle impact on an economy’s potential output?
  7. What factors might influence a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?