GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt

The eagerly awaited GDP figures for the first quarter of 2011 show that output is only back to the level of the third quarter of 2010. In effect, economic growth has ground to a halt.

Turning the lights out on the economy

The eagerly awaited GDP figures for the first quarter of 2011 were released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this morning. They show the economy expanded by 0.5 per cent. This follows a 0.5 per cent contraction in the final quarter of 2010. Output is only back to the level of the third quarter of 2010.

The ONS’s statisticians believe that December’s appalling weather resulted in a loss of output equal to 0.5 per cent of the total. If they are right, then the underlying rate of growth was zero in both the final quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011. In effect, economic growth has ground to a halt. Nowadays, economists define a recession as a period of at least two consecutive quarters of contraction in real GDP. After adjusting for the effects of the weather, the UK has just come as close as it is possible to come to a recession without actually being in one.

According to George Osborne, this was not supposed to happen. He has said on many occasions, including in an FT article (£) last March co-authored with Jeffrey Sachs, that fiscal retrenchment would stimulate the economy through increased consumer and business spending as a result of higher confidence and reduced borrowing costs.

The belief that confidence would be increased by the announcement of tax increases and public spending cuts always looked to be the weak link in this argument, and so it has proved. Consumer confidence has fallen back close to the levels seen during the depths of the recession. In part, this is due to factors outside the chancellor’s control, particularly higher food and petrol prices. But a higher rate of VAT, an increase in national insurance contributions, the freezing of child benefit payments and the prospect of deteriorating public services have also played a major part. It is hard to believe that anyone really thought such a litany of negative news would do anything other than severely dent confidence.

It is true that business confidence in some sectors, particularly among manufacturers who are benefiting from strong overseas demand, has held up better. But the softness of demand on the High Street is now beginning to affect retailers. Some will fail, others will survive only by cutting back their expansion plans and investment programmes. Either way, investment demand will be weaker, not stronger as a result of the cuts.

There is an indication of this in today’s figures, which show construction spending fell by 4.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2011 after a 2.3 per cent decline in the previous quarter.

Whether the chancellor’s aggressive deficit reduction programme has reduced borrowing costs, compared to what they would otherwise have been, remains a matter of debate. He is adamant that the economy was on the brink of bankruptcy when the coalition took power and that a slower pace of fiscal retrenchment would have led to soaring interest rates and a crisis similar to those endured by Greece, Ireland and Portugal. There is, however, little evidence to support this view. The fiscal position of the UK, in terms of the level of debt and its average maturity, which are just as important as the current deficit in this regard, is very different from that of these countries.

The yield on UK government bonds is lower now than it was, on average, in the first half of 2010 but it would be wrong to ascribe this decline solely to the coalition’s fiscal strategy. Bond yields are also determined by the medium-term outlook for growth, inflation and short-term interest rates. It is just as reasonable to say that bond yields are lower in the UK now because output growth forecasts have been cut as it is to say that they are lower as a result of a shift in fiscal policy. Look at Japan, which has the highest public debt in the developed world. It also has the lowest bond yields because growth and inflation expectations are so low.

It is inevitable that today’s figures focus attention on how close the UK has come to a double-dip recession. But the real worry should be the medium-term and the possibility that the UK will experience several years of low growth, as Japan did in the 1990s. If this happens, the debate about how much the Chancellor’s fiscal plans contributed to this outcome will be with us for many years.

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16 Responses to “GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt”

  1. Paul Trembath

    RT @leftfootfwd: GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt: writes @ippr's Tony Dolphin

  2. Vix

    RT @leftfootfwd: GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt: writes @ippr's Tony Dolphin

  3. AltGovUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt: writes @ippr's Tony Dolphin

  4. Notayesmanseconomics

    I agree that growth has ground to a halt and for maths pedants is marginally negative. However I avoid the political debate and concentrate on the economics so my view on my Notayesmanseconomics blog concerns the Bank of England as if you think about it things are going badly for it.

    “This brings me back to a theme for the UK which is stagflation…..If we put to one side my view that the UK needs a change of economic policy and look at the consensus view of our Monetary Policy Committee it is apparent that they are in danger of not only failing on my terms but also failing on their own. In truth we can see that they have really targeted economic growth in the UK and the result of this has been no growth at all over the past six months.”

    Monetary policy could hardly be much more expansionary and look where we appear to be (todays figures only have forty per cent of the final data). High inflation and no economic growth…

  5. Robert

    The world has changed, we have been flogging a dead horse for so long it finally has died. People in the public are not spending and we live in a consumer selling buying world, and the public are not happy they have stopped spending. My TV went last week normally I would buy one from a large retail unit, but I checked on the free adds and picked up one for £80.

    People will not start to spend again until government secure jobs, and people feel safe.

  6. Broken OfBritain

    GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt | Left Foot Forward:

  7. Gemma

    RT @BrokenOfBritain: GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt | Left Foot Forward:

  8. Chris

    So you’ve averaged out the last two quarters and concluded that growth is zero? Cute idea, but that’s not how it works. If you want to know what is happening to the economy at the moment, the measure to use is the most current one; the one that shows GROWTH of 0.5%. What you’ve done is added in the only quarter of the last year when the economy shrank – for reasons the ONS explain as being exceptional – and taken it as if it was part of the current trend.

    This is like saying the weather hasn’t been getting warmer this spring because it got colder last autumn. If you look at the last year, you see average growth of 0.43%. If you look at the last quarter, there’s growth of 0.5%. The ONLY way you can make it look like there’s no growth is the way you’ve done it, which leaves you open to accusations of cherry-picking.

    Of course, it may be that next quarter will see zero growth, in which case this post would be shown to be remarkably prescient, but that’s just speculation and, IMO, unlikely to happen, although VAT, petrol prices and (if it rises) unemployment are likely to keep growth below 1%.

  9. Ash


    Surely the idea is that if the ONS are right and the weather repressed growth by 0.5% last quarter, we should have seen a 0.5% ‘bounce-back’ this quarter *on top of* trend growth as the economy got back on track? Just as growth should have been flat last quarter but was lower because of a one-off blip in the weather, so it should have been flat this quarter but was higher because of a one-off bounceback effect.

    That’s what I understand from the FT piece summarised here, anyway:

  10. The Free Market

    #CFP #SKP GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt | Left Foot …

  11. Mr. Sensible

    These statistics should come with the health warning that there are 2 revisions of Q1 still to come.

    I am more than a bit bored of Osborne and Cameron continuing to talk about Ireland et al in this way; those countries got in to the mess exactly by cutting too far and too fast. Fact.

  12. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – “those countries got in to the mess exactly by cutting too far and too fast. Fact.”


  13. Daniel Pitt

    GDP figures show economic growth has ground to a halt: #ConDemNation

  14. Tom White

    Pipe down, Anon E Troll…

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