A curious treatment of inflation has knocked more than 3% off UK GDP

This morning has brought us up to date on the UK economy in the third quarter of this year. These days we get the numbers with a bit more of a delay than in the past and in this confused pandemic period our official statisticians must be grateful for it. It gives them more time to check matters and collect a fuller set of quarterly data.

Following two consecutive quarters of contraction, UK gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated to have grown by a record 15.5% in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2020. This is the largest quarterly expansion in the UK economy since Office for National Statistics (ONS) quarterly records began in 1955.

So we see quite a bounce back, but it is also true that momentum was lost.

The monthly path of GDP in Quarter 3 2020 reveals that there has been a slowdown of growth in August and September as momentum has eased through the quarter. GDP increased by 6.3% in July, driven by accommodation and food services as lockdown restrictions were eased.

That was the peak followed by this.

GDP grew by 2.2% in August, driven by accommodation and food services because of the combined impact of easing lockdown restrictions and the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, as well as growth in the accommodation industry as international travel restrictions boosted domestic “staycations”.

Of course, there is a different perspective to the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme as we mull how much it contributed to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and thus reduced GDP later on. Fortunately we continued to grow in September as some thought we might not.

In September, GDP further slowed to 1.1% where professional, scientific and technical activities had the largest contribution and legal activities, accounting and advertising saw strong growth after a muted August.

Actually September saw a swing back in something I drew attention to in the second quarter data where the UK statisticians treated education in a really rather odd way. From August 12th.

The implied deflator strengthened in the second quarter, increasing by 6.2%. This primarily reflects movements in the implied price change of government consumption, which increased by 32.7% in Quarter 2 2020.

That as I pointed out at the time was really quite bizarre and led to around 5% being subtracted from UK GDP. This time around they put some of it back as I note this in the September detail.

Education also had a large positive contribution in September as schools made further advances in returning to a level of teaching similar to before the lockdown started on 23 March 2020, primarily through increased attendance.

The state sector in GDP

This has long been a problem in GDP numbers which rely on prices and therefore hit trouble in areas where you do not have them.With much of UK education and health provision being state provided there is not a price mechanism and instead we see all sorts of often dubious assumptions. As a reminder I recall Pete Comley telling me that he had looked into the inflation measure for this sector ( called a deflator), when I provided some technical advice for his book on inflation  and felt they simply made the numbers up. Well in that vein remember the deflator which surged by 32.7%, well in Question of Sport style what happened next? We get a hint from the nominal data.

Nominal GDP increased by 12.6% in Quarter 3 2020, its largest quarterly expansion on record

So a 2.9% gap between it and the real GDP number with this causing it.

The implied deflator fell by 2.5% in the third quarter, the first quarterly decline since Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2015. This primarily reflects movements in the implied price change of government consumption, which fell by 7.0% in Quarter 3 2020.

So we got a bit under a quarter of it back. The explanation would have been described by the Alan Parsons Project as Psychobabble.

This decrease occurred because the volume of government activity in the third quarter increased at a much greater rate than nominal government expenditure. This is partly because of the unwinding in some of the movements that occurred in the second quarter, which saw a fall in the volume of government activity at the same time as an increase in government expenditure in nominal terms.

This really is a bit of a dog’s dinner.

 In education, the large fall in the volume of education activity in the second quarter followed by the large increase in the third quarter help explain the most recent quarterly movement in the implied deflator.

The same happened to health.

In the third quarter, nominal spending on health was largely unchanged, while volumes increased, which has impacted upon the growth rate of the implied deflator in the third quarter.

Applying normal metrics to abnormal times has them singing along with Kylie Minogue.

I’m spinning around, move out of my way
I know you’re feeling me ’cause you like it like this
I’m breaking it down, I’m not the same
I know you’re feeling me ’cause you like it like this.

We can compare this with others to see the scale of what has happened here. We do not have numbers for the full Euro area but Germany for example saw its deflator rise by 0.5% in the second quarter and then returned to a slightly lower level in the third quarter. So very different. France saw more of a move with its deflator rising by 2.4% but has now reduced it to below the previous level. Spain saw barely any change at all

A Trade Surplus

The UK finds itself maybe not quite in unknown territory but along the way.

In the 12 months to September 2020, the total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £35.9 billion to a surplus of £5.2 billion.

Yes you did see the word surplus which is a rare beast for annual data for the UK and we can continue the theme.

The UK total trade surplus, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, decreased £3.4 billion to £4.2 billion in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2020, as imports grew by £17.3 billion and exports grew by a lesser £13.8 billion.

However the theme does hit rougher water with the latest monthly data.

The total trade balance for September 2020, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, decreased by £3.6 billion to a deficit of £0.6 billion; imports increased by £3.6 billion while exports remained flat.

Comment

The pandemic has created all sorts of issues but in terms of economics we find ourselves here, or rather this is where we were at the end of the third quarter.

the level of GDP in the UK is still 9.7% below where it was at the end of 2019. Compared with the same quarter a year ago, the UK economy fell by 9.6%.

In spite of the media obsession with recessions this is a depression and we should call it such. Looking ahead we know that things will be depressed by the four week lockdown we are presently in meaning the economy looks set to shrink again in this quarter. There are some newer official surveys for October which suggest we had lost more growth momentum as restrictions began again.

BICs for 5-18 October 2020, found that of businesses currently trading, 45% reported their turnover had decreased below what is normally expected for October, compared to 48% reporting decreases in September……While it is not clear exactly how strong a relationship there is between GDP and BICs, the business survey data suggests the outlook has improved only modestly, if at all, as we moved into October. ( @jathers_ONS )

However if we return to the overall pattern for 2020 we see that a decision by the Office for National Statistics has depressed the way it records UK GDP and that it is ongoing with less than a quarter being reversed. This makes international comparisons very difficult especially for those unaware of the situation. We need I think to add at least 3% to the UK number when we try to compare internationally.

On a statistical level I regularly find the ONS justifying things on the basis of “international standards” so it needs in my opinion to explain why it has taken such a different path this time.

 

 

 

 

 

UK GDP is a case of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Today is an example of be careful what you wish for. No doubt the UK Office for National Statistics thought it would be clever to produce monthly GDP data. But now in addition to the usual problems they find them not only being scanned beyond their capabilities but for the unwary comparing them to the quarterly and annual ones creates quite a of confusion. Indeed we can go through them in Spaghetti Western style.

The Good

This comes from this part of the release where we how have had three months of economic growth in a row.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.6% in July 2020 as lockdown measures continued to ease, following growth of 8.7% in June and 2.4% in May.

In terms of detail we are told this.

“Education grew strongly as some children returned to school, while pubs, campsites and hairdressers all saw notable improvements. Car sales exceeded pre-crisis levels for the first time with showrooms having a particularly busy time.

“All areas of manufacturing, particularly distillers and car makers, saw improvements, while housebuilding also continued to recover.”

The latter component will, of course,please the Bank of England. I have to confess a wry smile at the mention of distillers, have we been driven to drink? As to car sales this was reinforced elsewhere.

wholesale, retail and repair of motor vehicles subsector (in particular, the motor vehicles industry), which recovered to above its February 2020 level after seeing record low levels of output in April and May.

This is an area which was affected by the lockdown as when I took my car in for its MOT in August I was told that in April last year they had done 110 and this year 18. Another area which was similarly affected also boomed in July.

Monthly construction output increased by 17.6% in July 2020 compared with June 2020, rising to £11,922 million, because of growth in all construction sectors.

Then and slightly confusingly not directly linked to the GDP numbers ( which are output not expenditure ones) these will not be included.

The total trade surplus, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £5.9 billion to £6.4 billion in the three months to July 2020, as imports fell by £8.5 billion and exports fell by a lesser £2.7 billion.

I point it out as it is rare for the UK to record a trade surplus which continues as we look for more perspective.

The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £35.8 billion to a surplus of £3.7 billion in the 12 months to July 2020.

The Bad

Our perspective shifts as we switch to something approaching the more normal quarterly measure for GDP.

Gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 7.6% in the three months to July 2020 following two consecutive quarterly falls, as government restrictions on movement dramatically reduced economic activity.

In case you are wondering how we can grow for 3 individual months but shrink over the total it is because we are comparing the latter with the previous 3 months which include some pre pandemic data.

The Ugly

This comes if we directly compare with where we were or more strictly where we thought we were before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Monthly gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.6% in July 2020, following growth of 8.7% in June 2020. Despite this, the level of output did not fully recover from the record falls seen across March and April 2020 and was still 11.7% below the levels seen in February 2020,

So we have picked up but the peak is still a fair way ahead. Or if you prefer.

July 2020 GDP is now 18.6% higher than its April 2020 low. However, it remains 11.7% below the levels seen in February 2020,

There is a sub-plot to this which is unusual for the UK.

In July 2020, the Index of Services is 12.6% below February 2020, the last month of “normal” trading conditions prior to measures introduced as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic…..There was a rise of 6.1% in the Index of Services between June 2020 and July 2020.

The area which is normally a strength and pulls the numbers higher has in fact under performed. One feature of this is hardly a surprise although we can expect a pick-up from the “eat out to help out” policy when we get the August numbers.

Total services output decreased by 8.1% for the three months to July 2020, compared with the months to April 2020; this was led by accommodation and food service activities, which fell by 62.7%.

On the other side of the coin production has been helping in relative terms.

In July 2020, the Index of Production (IoP) was 7.0% below February 2020, the previous month of “normal” trading conditions, prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic…..Production output rose by 5.2% between June and July 2020, with manufacturing providing the largest upward contribution, rising by 6.3%; there were also rises from electricity and gas (2.7%), water and waste (2.4%) and mining and quarrying (0.7%).

It was led by this.

The monthly increase of 6.3% in manufacturing output was led by transport equipment, which rose by 18.5%; all of the 13 subsectors displayed upward contributions.

However it had been in a weak spell anyway and then was hit hard so care is needed.

Comment

There are a lot of contexts and warnings required here many of which are driven by the unreliability of monthly GDP data. The unreliability will be worse right now due to the pandemic as we note something I was pretty much alone in reporting on August 12th.

This primarily reflects movements in the implied price change of government consumption, which increased by 32.7% in Quarter 2 2020. This notable increase occurred because the volume of government activity fell while at the same time government expenditure increased in nominal terms.

More was recorded as less which is a UK peculiarity and made our GDP numbers look worse by maybe 5% on the fall. But now we are seeing the other side of some of that as we note this from the July data.

The largest contribution to monthly growth is education, rising by 21.1%.

Now let me look at the mess which is health.

For example, the suspension of dental and ophthalmic activities (almost 6% of healthcare output), the cancellation and postponement of outpatient activities (13% of healthcare output), and elective procedures (19% of healthcare output) will likely weigh heavily on our activity figures.

If course for a spell Covid-19 treatment was booming well if we counted it.

 Further, our estimates may be affected by the suspension of some data collections by the NHS in England, which include patient volumes in critical care in England.

Oh and if you are struggling with quarterly numbers please run me by how you can get monthly GDP numbers?

For example, the quarterly activity estimates are only made available with a lag, necessitating a form of activity nowcasts.

That is a bit like the services monthly trade data which come mainly from a quarterly survey.

So we did not contract by as much as we thought and have not rebounded by quite as much either.

Looking ahead there are some further strengths for August as we have noted the potential rise in eating out and the Markit PMI reporting this.

A further surge in service sector business activity in August
adds to signs that the economy is enjoying a mini boom as
business re-opens after the lockdowns,

But the PMIs have been downgraded in importance quite a bit as time has passed. Looking further ahead there is this.

The UK has secured a free trade agreement with Japan, which is the UK’s first major trade deal as an independent trading nation, and will increase trade with Japan by an estimated £15.2 billion ( Sky News)

Oh and these things always promise more trade…..

Back to now whilst it was nice to have a bit of variety and be able to report a UK trade surplus it is also true it came from a bad route which is lower imports due to a weaker economy.