UK GDP shows that we are experiencing a depression rather than a recession

by Shaun Richards

Today gives us an opportunity to find out what the UK economy was up to in August so let me start with the good news which is that it grew. Indeed in ordinary times this would be considered stellar growth. Although of course these times are quite some distance from ordinary.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.1% in August 2020 following growth of 6.4% in July, 9.1% in June and 2.7% in May.

As you can see we have had four months of very strong growth but the pattern has been very erratic. Although as I will come to later there is a worrying trend if you just look at the last three months.

The Services Sector

As we are looking at August I doubt many will be surprised where much of the growth came from.

In August 2020, the services sector grew by 2.4%, following growth of 5.9% in July. The accommodation and food services sub-sector was the largest contributor to the increase in August, in particular, the food and beverage service activities industry, which grew 69.7% as the combined impact of easing lockdown restrictions and the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme boosted consumer demand for bars and restaurants.

So the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme was successful in its initial aim although with local lockdowns spreading it seems likely that the boost will fade. In fact the whole sector was on a bit of a tear in August.

The accommodation industry also grew by 76% as international travel restrictions boosted domestic “staycations”. These industries contributed 1.25 percentage points to the 2.1% growth in GDP for August 2020.

Even with this growth we have a fair distance still to travel.

In August 2020, the Index of Services was 9.6% below February 2020, the previous month of “normal” trading conditions, prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Some sectors have further to go than others.

There were four industries that failed to reach 50% of their pre-February 2020 level; these were travel agencies, air transport, rail transport, and creative, arts and entertainment.

Also I note significant growth being recorded for education ( worth 0.35% of GDP) and health ( 0.13%) of GDP as we begin to correct the extraordinary inflation recorded by out statisticians in these areas in the second quarter.


This also played its part in August.

Production output rose by 0.3% between July 2020 and August 2020, with manufacturing providing the largest upward contribution, rising by 0.7%; electricity and gas also rose (1.6%), partially offset by a fall in mining and quarrying (4.1%).

But as you can see on a much smaller scale especially as mining and quarrying was a brake. However over the pandemic period as a whole it has done better than services.

production output is 6.0% lower than the level in February 2020, with manufacturing 8.5% lower.


Regular readers will know that even in much calmer times these numbers had what Taylor Swift would call “trouble,trouble,trouble” which will be even worse now. But with that caveat here they are.

Monthly construction output growth slowed to 3.0% in August 2020, following record monthly growth of 21.8% in June 2020 and growth of 17.2% in July 2020.

So the surge has slowed substantially and even so this is where we think we are.

The level of construction output in August 2020 remains 10.8% below the February 2020 level.

More Perspective

We find out a little more from this.

Gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 8.0% in the three months to August 2020 as restrictions on movement eased across June, July and August.

An extraordinary burst of growth but it is much smaller than the fall. The pattern is rather different from what we have become used to.

All the headline sectors provided a positive contribution to GDP growth in the three months to August 2020. The services sector grew by 7.1%, production by 9.3% and construction by 18.5%.

So the usual leader of the pack which is services have been an under performer. This is in spite of the fact that we have surge a surge in accommodation and hospitality of 85.5% and 16.4% in education.

So a very different structure from normal as we see that this is a services driven depression.

Back to Normal?

Er no.

August 2020 GDP is now 21.7% higher than its April 2020 low. However, it remains 9.2% below the levels seen in February 2020, before the full impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In terms of structure we have this.

The production sector remains 6.0% lower than the level in February 2020, before the main impacts of the coronavirus were seen…….The services sector remains 9.6% lower than the level in February 2020……The construction sector remains 10.8% lower than the level in February 2020.

Seasonal Adjustment

GDP numbers rely quite a bit on this and as you will see tucked away in it is some hope for September.

In normal times this works well: education outputis smoothed through the year, effectively ‘looking through’ the school holidays as they come and go.

We are back to education so let’s have some Alice Cooper who was on the ball this year.

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces

How have our statisticians dealt with this?

Observing a steady increase in school attendance in June and July, and with early evidence that classroom numbers were much closer to normal in September, we will instead smooth the path of education output over the holidays. That means education output will be higher in August than July, but lower than our September estimate……As schools have returned, attendance levels have been much higher than before the school holidays. Everything else being equal, this points to a much stronger September estimate.

The whole issue of seasonal adjustment this year is quite a minefield.

A Trade Surplus

I have been pointing out that we now have a trade surplus for several months now and we have another one.

The UK total trade surplus, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased £3.8 billion to £7.7 billion in the three months to August 2020, as exports grew by £21.4 billion and imports grew by a lesser £17.5 billion.

Unlike in the GDP arena this seems to be a services thing.

The widening of the total trade surplus in the three months to August 2020, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, was driven by an £11.9 billion increase in services exports, compared with a lesser £8.9 billion increase in services imports.

Even on an annual basis we now have a surplus.

The total trade balance (goods and services), excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £33.9 billion to a £4.9 billion surplus in the 12 months to August 2020,

Whilst a surplus for the UK is welcome after decades of deficits the smile changes Cheshire Cat style as we note this.

 Imports of goods decreased by £76.9 billion, while exports decreased by a lesser £39.4 billion.


This morning’s release is both welcome and sobering. The welcome bit is that we have growth but the sobering bit is that we have a long way to go still. It has been a very poor day for those claiming we are in the middle of a “V-Shaped” recovery. Let me illustrate with this from Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane.

Four months on, we now expect GDP to be around 3-4% below its pre-Covid level by the end of the third
quarter. In other words, the economy has already recovered just under 90% of its earlier losses. Having
fallen precipitously by 20% in the second quarter, we expect UK GDP to have risen by a vertiginous 20% in
the third quarter – by some margin its largest-ever rise. Put differently, since May UK GDP has been rising,
on average, by around 1.5% per week.

The man I have described as a “loose cannon on the decks” has been free wheeling again. Of course we might grow by 5-6% in September but in August we grew in a month by what he thought would take not much more than a week. Still I am pleased he has been doing some reading albeit of a book I read as a child.

Now is not the time for the economics of Chicken Licken.

For those of you who have never read this Chicken Licken was worried about the sky falling down. Well it looks like it has on Andy’s forecasts and on Andy himself who is now a figure of fun even amongst those that previously cheered him.

Central bankers aren’t known as innovators or thought leaders, but Andrew Haldane, a senior official at the Bank of England, is an exception. ( Time 100)

Oh how Time magazine must wish they could redact that! But the more important point is something I have been making all along. This is a depression much more than a recession and it looks as though it is going to last much longer than some claimed. Yes we have seem bounce backs in some areas but others are plainly in a mess.

As it would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday let me finish with this.

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — strange days indeed