When is a recession a recession (update) – a review of recent UK growth numbers

One very important characteristic of economic growth is its short-term volatility. The volatility of growth underpins the idea of business cycles and on occasions results in recessions. The traditional definition is where real GDP (output) declines for 2 or more consecutive quarters. Interestingly, the latest GDP numbers contained in the Quarterly National Accounts mean that the recession previously evidenced from 2011 Q4 to 2012 Q2 has effectively disappeared. Nonetheless, output today is still 3.3 per cent lower than before the 2008 economic downturn.

The ONS’s latest output numbers raise some interesting questions around our understanding of what constitutes a recession. Should, for instance, we define it solely in terms of real GDP and, even if we do, is a strict statistical definition based around two consecutive quarterly falls appropriate? The recent estimates from the ONS show that the 2008/9 recession saw output fall by 7.2 per cent. They show that UK output peaked in 2008Q1 (£392.786 billion at 2010 prices). There then followed 6 quarters during which output declined.

Output declined again in 2010 Q4 (-0.2% growth) and again in 2011 Q4 (-0.1% growth). The new estimates of real GDP for 2011 Q4 and 2012 Q1 are now identical at £376,462 billion (at 2010 prices). Previous revisions have also seen the 2012 Q1 growth number revised up and, hence, a further recession resulting in a double-dip recession has effectively now been statistically removed. The 2013 Q1 Quarterly National Accounts revised growth up so that 2012 Q1 only saw a percentage fall when measured to the third decimal place (–0.007% growth).

While output is now portrayed as (very) flat in 2012 Q1, it did fall again in 2012 Q2 (-0.5 per cent growth) and in 2012 Q4 (-0.3 per cent growth). Moving forward in time, the latest ONS numbers show that the economy grew by 0.4 per cent in 2013 Q1 (to £377,301 billion at 2010 prices) and by 0.7 per cent in 2013 Q2 (to £379,780 billion at 2010 prices). Despite this, output remains 3.3 per cent below its 2008 Q1 peak. A more positive spin on the numbers would be to point out that output is up 4.2 per cent from its 2009 Q3 trough (£364,557 billion at 2010 prices).

Perhaps the debate around the appearance and disappearance of recessions in official data strengthen the argument for a more holistic and considered view of what constitutes a recession. In the USA the wonderfully-named Business Cycle Dating Committee takes a less fixed view of economic activity and, hence, of recessions. Its website argues:

It (the Committee) examines and compares the behavior of various measures of broad activity: real GDP measured on the product and income sides, economy-wide employment, and real income. The Committee also may consider indicators that do not cover the entire economy, such as real sales and the Federal Reserve’s index of industrial production (IP).

Of course, the advantage of focusing on real GDP alone in measuring activity and in determining recessions is that it is usually very straightforward to interpret. Regardless of whether the UK did or did not experience a recession at the end of 2011 and into 2012, the chart helps to put the recent growth numbers into an historical context. It shows the quarterly change in real GDP since the 1980s.

From the chart, we can see the 5-quarter recession that commenced in 1980 Q1 when output shrunk by 4.6 per cent, the 5-quarter recession that commenced in 1990 Q3 when output shrank by 2.4 per cent and the 6-quarter recession that commenced in 2008 Q2 when output shrank by 7.2 per cent. (Click here to download a PowerPoint version of the chart.)

The chart allows to see the other characteristic of growth too: over the long run growth is positive. Since 1980, the average rate of growth per quarter has been 0.57 per cent. This is equivalent to an average rate of growth of 2.3 per cent per year.

Since 2008 Q2, quarterly growth has averaged -0.16 per cent which is equivalent to an annual rate of growth of -0.63 per cent! In any language these are extraordinary numbers and certainly help to put the recent rebound in growth into context.


Quarterly National Accounts Time Series Dataset Q2 2013 Office for National Statistics
Statistical Bulletin: Quarterly National Accounts Q2 2013 Office for National Statistics

New Articles
GDP grows 0.7% as UK economy shows steady recovery Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/9/13)
Hopes of economic recovery take double blow as GDP remains at 0.7% Independent, Russell Lynch (26/9/13)
UK economic growth confirmed at 0.7% BBC News (26/9/13)
IMF cuts global growth outlook but raises UK forecast BBC News (9/10/13)
Good news as IMF upgrades UK’s growth forecast Independent, Ben Chu (8/10/13)
Economy: IMF Makes UK Growth Forecast U-Turn Sky News (8/10/13)

Previous Articles
UK avoided double-dip recession in 2011, revised official data shows Guardian, Phillip Inman (27/6/13)
Britain’s double dip recession revised away, but picture still grim Reuters, David Milliken and William Schomberg (27/6/13)
UK double-dip recession revised away BBC News (27/6/13)
IMF raises UK economic growth forecast BBC News (9/7/13)
IMF raises UK economic growth forecast to 0.9% but cuts prediction for global growth Independent, Holly Williams (9/7/13)
IMF Upgrades UK Growth Forecast For 2013 Sky News (9/7/13)


  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 1980s.
  3. What is a recession? What is a double-dip recession?
  4. What are some of the problems with the traditional definition of a recession?
  5. Explain the arguments for and against the proposition that the UK has recently experienced a double-dip recession.
  6. Can a recession occur if nominal GDP is actually rising? Explain your answer.
  7. What factors might result in economic growth being so variable?
  8. Produce a short briefing paper exploring the prospects for economic growth in the UK over the next 12 to 18 months.