Recession is a word that has immense power, striking apprehension into the hearts of businesses, politicians and consumers alike.
Talk of a recession can also precipitate the very economic conditions that are so feared and it is worrying that the word is currently appearing regularly in the daily news media.
But is recession a useful concept especially in the context of increasing pressure to move to sustainable, rather than perpetual, economic growth, in order to combat climate change and global warming?
Should we keep growing?
The generally-accepted definition of a recession is, according to the Business Dictionary: a contraction in the GDP for six months (two consecutive quarters) or longer. It goes on to say: “Marked by high unemployment, stagnant wages, and fall in retail sales, a recession generally does not last longer than one year and is much milder than a depression. Although [they] are considered a normal part of a capitalist economy, there is no unanimity of economists on its causes.”
So, by these measures, the UK has its highest ever employment and rising wages and is not in recession. On the other hand, it is suffering from falling retail sales, apparently now online as well as on the High Street, as a result, we are told, of declining consumer confidence and worries over future job stability.
Clearly, an imminent recession has been a worry for some time, at least as far as the media has been concerned.
Over the course of the last two months, every time the latest confidence and productivity figures have been announced it has prompted speculation.
In early September, the Sunday Times reported data from MakeUK and BDO who both indicated falls in factory output and from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) whose latest growth indicator showed a continued decline in services and distribution volumes.
Later in the month these same two bodies were reporting that domestic orders in the UK manufacturing sector had declined in the third quarter for the first time in three years as well as reporting weakening export orders.
Purchasing managers’ monthly indexes from IHS Markit/CIPS throughout the month showed declining confidence in the services, manufacturing and construction sectors.
And so it went on until by the start of October, the Guardian was claiming that a recession was on the way.
In view of the persistent pessimistic data one might wonder how we are not in a recession.
It might be explained by the alternative views based on other data. For example, the Economist carried an opinion piece that pointed out that the last two recessions, between August 2000 and September 2001, and then in 2008, had been as a result of “epic financial crisis” accompanied by stock market crashes.
It then argued that a recession was as much a matter of mood as it was of any reliable economic signals and signs.
Meanwhile on September 27 David Blanchflower, Professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US and member of the MPC (Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England) from 2006-09, argued that the UK was already in recession, even though the conditions for the technical definition had not yet been fulfilled.
Ah, so it is down to the definition of recession. Is a recession now like news: fake or real? And what is a technical recession?
Blanchflower based his argument on the fall in “how businesses are doing on turnover, capacity constraints, employment and investment intentions” arguing that since GDP figures are actually regularly revised after their initial announcement they cannot be used as an indicator of recession.
Confused? That’s no surprise!
This is why I am suggesting that the widespread use of the term is less than helpful to businesses trying to navigate their way through the admittedly uncertain landscapes of imminent Brexit, global trade wars and political mayhem.
They would be much better served by focusing on their cash flow, balance sheets, growth plans and other data in order to remain sustainable and profitable, whatever the surrounding, feverish “mood music” of recession talk.