It will be flat

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Tomorrow brings the much awaited preliminary estimate of Q1 GDP, the first official data on for 2013. The question on many commentator and economists minds as they wait for the release is whether or not the UK will enter a feared triple dip.

Most economists are expecting GDP to be broadly flat, with many predictions falling between the -0.1% and +0.1% range.

What hints can other indicators give us?

Production: A recent blog by my colleague Felicity showed that manufacturing output will have to grow 1.6% in March to avoid contraction in the first quarter of 2013. While this level is not unprecedented given the monthly volatility we have seen in manufacturing output, it is almost certainly looking at a quarter of contraction. Clearly there is a lot going on within the sector so this will not be the case for all sectors - Aerospace and Mechanical have been more positive recently.

Looking more widely at all of production, there is a greater chance of production positively contributing to growth. Production output will be set to grow if March output contracts by less than 0.3%.

Trade: The overall trade deficit improved in January but worsened in February. We will need to see further improvement in the deficit in March for trade to not be a drag on growth over the quarter. Export growth has been negative with exports reducing 2.1% and 2.7% in January and February respectively.

Industry indicators: Euro area PMIs have continued to show contraction across Europe, which has made conditions difficult for UK companies exporting to the EU. The US and Chinese manufacturing PMIs have been signalling expansion but at a slower pace. EEF's Business Trends Survey shows the balance of 1% of companies saw output fall in the past three months but a balance of 22% are expecting them to pick up in the next three months.

All up GDP is on a bit of a knife-edge and could go either way. For the record, we are expecting no growth in GDP over the quarter.

Does the sign really matter?

Whether GDP in the first quarter of 2013 is positive or negative is not really the key issue. Looking at the path of GDP over time it becomes obvious that GDP has been broadly flat for the past 18 months or so (see chart below). And if GDP growth comes in within the expected range, whether positive or negative, we will see a continuation of this trend.

GDP growth broadly flat for the past 18 months

GDP, chained volume measure, seasonally adjusted, 2009 prices

So, with growth still eluding us, the real concern shouldn't be on whether we have entered a triple dip – which, if it does eventuate, could very well be revised away over time. The more important issue should be how can we get growth back on track? We are missing an overarching plan for growth, that will drive decisions and protect those areas of support that are most important for the long-term competitiveness of the UK.


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