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Is Britain on the edge of recession? History is an unreliable guide

Is Britain on the edge of recession? History is an unreliable guide

Concerns are growing about a marked slowdown in the UK economy. The Lloyds Bank purchasing managers’ index, for example, fell to 52.1 in April, its lowest point since 2013. The initial estimate for GDP, total output, in the first quarter of this year shows an increase of just 0.4 per cent on the final quarter of 2015.

Growth since the start of 2015 has been only 2.1 per cent, a rate which is a rough benchmark as to whether employment rises or falls. Indeed, in February, the latest month for which we have data, the Labour Force Survey showed that the total number of jobs in the UK was unchanged since December.

On the positive side, the economy has definitely grown since the recession, with output being up by 7.3 per cent on its previous peak value just before the recession in the first quarter of 2008. And these are the official estimates, which may not be able to cope with measuring accurately activity in the new cyber economy.

But economic slowdowns and recessions do happen. Indeed, they are a fact of life. The upsurge in inflation in the 1970s, when it reached 25 per cent, captured the mind-sets of policy-makers and prevented them from realising that low inflation, which we have now had for over 20 years, is normal. In the same way, the long period of continuous expansion during the 1990s and 2000s distorted expectations about what is normal. This period, which economists dub the Great Moderation, during which Gordon Brown claimed he had abolished boom and bust, makes people think, incorrectly, that recessions are very unusual.

We have quarterly GDP data in the UK going back to 1955. Economists have a fairly arbitrary definition of a recession as being at least two successive quarters of negative growth. Since 1955, we have had eight such periods. So, on average, we have a recession once every seven or eight years. We had one in 2008-09, and we might think that, on the law of averages, one is due now.

Things are not so simple. Economists write about the “business cycle”, as though the fluctuations in economic growth were regular. But this is a piece of jargon. The Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas pointed out 40 years ago that the key feature about economic ups and downs is that most sectors of the economy tend to move together, so we can presume there are general factors driving the economy. Specific factors will influence specific industries, but these do not cause the economy as a whole to boom or shrink.

The gaps between recessions are in fact pretty irregular. For example, there was one in 1956 and another in 1957. The recession of 1973 was followed quickly by the one in 1975. In contrast, there was a gap of 17 years between the 1990-91 contraction and the financial crisis.

Decision-makers do not like uncertainty, and Brexit is certainly creating this. Capital spending by companies stopped growing in the late summer of 2015. So it might all bounce back after 23 June.

Paul Ormerod

As Published in City AM on Wednesday 12th May 2016

Image: Pound Coin by Andrew Writer licensed under CC by 2.0

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