Latest UK GDP data even worse than it looks

By Michael Burke

The latest release for British GDP in the 3rd quarter was unrevised – but the composition of that growth was awful. GDP rose by 0.5% in the quarter and is just 0.5% higher than a year ago. But analysis of the components of growth suggests the outlook is deteriorating.

Household consumption did not grow at all in the quarter and contracted by 1.5% over the course of the year. Investment (gross fixed capital formation) fell by 0.2% in the quarter and by 1.8% from a year ago. In terms of domestic expenditure only government spending rose in the quarter, up 0.9% on the quarter and 2.9% over the year. This is testimony to the multiplication of ‘austerity’ measures: If unemployment and poverty are increasing at a faster rate even than you cut welfare benefits your total welfare bill will rise.

Taken together UK domestic expenditure rose by £3bn in real terms in the quarter. But inventories rose by £2.9bn at the same time and therefore account for almost the entirety of domestic growth in the quarter. Since GDP rose by just £1.8bn in the 3rd quarter, the rise in inventories indeed exceeds the growth in GDP as well as accounting for almost the entirety of growth in domestic spending.

Inventory Build-Up

Inventories are a cyclical and erratic component of growth. But a persistent rise in inventories over a number of quarters only occurs if businesses are receiving new orders and are restocking as they become increasingly confident about a sustained upturn. This is sometimes called a voluntary rise in inventories. But this is not at all the situation presently. Domestic demand is stagnant and exports have also fallen in the last two quarters. It seems unlikely that order-books are filling up and businesses becoming more confident about future prospects. In fact the respected Market Purchasing Managers’ Index shows that new orders have been slowing dramatically, as shown in the chart below.

Figure 1 – PMI New Orders, National & London


Therefore the current build-up in stocks is likely to be an involuntary. Inventories are most likely rising because sales have not met expectations. If so, businesses will tend to meet new orders by depleting those existing inventories rather than increasing output. At the very least this rise in inventories is unlikely to be repeated over several quarters. The addition to growth in the 3rd quarter arising from rising inventories is unlikely to be repeated over several quarters.

As we have seen domestic demand would have been close to zero and GDP would have contracted without rising inventories. To avoid that fate in subsequent quarters some other component(s) of growth will have to begin to grow once more. Otherwise the British economy will begin to contract once more.

First posted on the Socialist Economic Bulletin >