How Bad Has It Been? 2008-2013 in Historical Perspective

The end of a year is a good time to take stock. For the first time since 2007, prospects for the UK for the forthcoming year look unequivocally good. But looking back, just how bad have the last few years been across the developed world as a whole? And how do they compare with previous recessions in a historical context? To keep you out of suspense, the answer to both these questions is ‘pretty bad’. In one key respect, it has been awful.

A good piece of news is that, in one sense, the length of the recession in 2008/09 was nothing remarkable. Using the data on GDP on the OECD’s website, the evidence from 20 developed countries across the world shows that during the first half of 2008, output had begun to fall, albeit slowly. This accelerated sharply following the collapse of Lehman’s in September of that year. The only countries to escape a recession at all are Australia and Poland.

By the end of 2009, GDP had begun to increase again across the globe. So on a widely used definition of a recession in economics, it was over. It had lasted a maximum of two years. Looking at all recessions since the late 19th century, this was entirely in line with experience. Ninety per cent of all recessions last for only one or two years.

The size of the recession, in contrast, was rather brutal. In the Euro zone, for example, from peak to trough the fall in GDP was over 6 per cent. In the OECD as a whole, it was 5 per cent. Historically, only a quarter of all recessions exhibit a fall in output of 5 per cent or more. In the Great Recession of the 1930s, in a number of economies, including America and Germany, GDP dropped by over 20 per cent. So whilst not as devastating as the 1930s, this time around, the fall in output was a big one.

The really bad aspect of the recent recession is the length of time it has taken for GDP to regain its previous peak level, before the crash. Historically, excluding the years of the world wars, only 20 per cent of all recessions last more than two years, using this definition rather than the conventional one, where it ends once output stops falling. Just 13 per cent persist for more than three years, and only 6 per cent for more than five. The all-time record, as it were, is the 10 years it took the US to regain its 1929 level of GDP.

America and Canada regained the previous peak level of GDP after some three years. The same is true of Germany and many in its immediate zone of influence, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. Even in these countries, the recession was long. But in 9 out of the 20 countries, output remains below its peak six years afterwards. The UK should get back next year, but the prospects for Italy, Spain, and Portugal look dire.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Wednesday 18th December 2013

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.