When is a recession a recession?

One very important characteristic of economic growth is its short-term volatility. Economic activity is notoriously volatile. It is such a fundamental idea that economists refer to it as one of their threshold concepts. The volatility of growth sees occasional recessions. The traditional definition is where real GDP (output) declines for 2 or more consecutive quarters. The latest figures from the Quarterly National Accounts call into question whether the UK technically experienced a recession at the start of 2012 with output broadly flat in 2012 Q1 following a contraction of 0.1 per cent in 2011 Q4.

The ONS’s latest output numbers raise some interesting questions around our understanding of what constitutes a recession. These figures show that the 2008/9 recession was deeper than first thought with output declining by 7.2 per cent. They show that UK output peaked in 2008Q1 (£392.786 billion at 2010 prices). There then followed 6 quarters where output declined.

Output declined again in 2010 Q4 (–0.2% growth) and again in 2011 Q4 (–0.1% growth). But then interpretations of the data become more controversial. Not least, we get in the debates concerning the accuracy with which we can expect to measure the size of the economy and so to how many decimal places one should realistically measure a rise or fall. In terms of the raw real GDP numbers output fell in 2012 Q1. In 2011 Q4 GDP is estimated at £376,462 billion (at 2010 prices) ‘falling’ to £376,436 billion (at 2010 prices) in 2012 Q1. But, this is a percentage fall only when measured to the third decimal place (–0.007% growth).

In its publication Impact of changes in the National Accounts and economic commentary for Q1 2013 the ONS argue that:

While some commentators may attempt to read some significance into this revision, particularly in the context of whether the UK experienced a “double-dip” recession, it is clearly absurd to imagine that it is possible to measure the size of the economy to this degree of accuracy. The best interpretation of the Blue Book figures is that the economy was flat in the first quarter of 2012, and 0.6% larger than in the same quarter of 2011.

It is however understandable that those with vested interests – including economists, policy-makers and politicians – will take a slightly different view and will read more into the figures than perhaps an objective, sober view might demand. What appears more certain is that output did again fall in 2012 Q2 (–0.5 per cent growth) and in 2012 Q4 (–0.2 per cent growth). Despite estimated growth of 0.3 per cent in 2013 Q1, output remains 3.9 per cent lower than at its 2008 Q1 peak.

Perhaps the ‘absurdity’ or not around the debate of a double-dip recessions strengthens 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 has experienced or not two recessions in close proximity, our chart helps to put the recent growth numbers into an historical context. It shows both the quarter-to-quarter changes in real GDP (left-hand axis) and the level of output as measured by GDP at constant 2010 prices (right-hand axis). Click here to download the chart to PowerPoint.

The chart captures nicely the twin characteristics of growth. Since 1960, the average rate of growth per quarter has been 0.63 per cent. This is equivalent to an average rate of growth of 2.55 per cent per year. Since 2008 Q2, quarterly growth has averaged –0.19 per cent which is equivalent to an annual rate of growth of –0.78 per cent! In any language these are extraordinary numbers. Indeed, one could argue that focusing any policy debate around whether or not the UK experienced a double-dip recession rather misses the more general point concerning the absense of any sustained economic growth since 2008.


Quarterly National Accounts Time Series Dataset Q1 2013 Office for National Statistics
Statistical Bulletin: Quarterly National Accounts Q1 2013 Office for National Statistics


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 1960s.
  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.