How the Post War United Kingdom's Annual Estimates of GDP Have Changed*

by

Samuel H. Williamson
MeasuringWorth
University of Illinois at Chicago
sam@mswth.org

How fast did the United Kingdom real GDP grow between 1958 and 1959? By consulting the official numbers of the 51 UK annual government reports since those two years, you can choose 18 different values in a range between 2.66% to 4.68%. Which is correct? Or perhaps the question is which of these 18 choices is “relevant?” If you are interested in how people were reacting to the reports at the time, then the relevant number is 2.66%, the growth computed for the 1960 report. If you are interested in the most consistent time series, then perhaps it is the 4.68% from the 2012 report. But in 2011 it was 4.28%, which does not give one much confidence that the 2013 report will not be different again.

This paper investigates changes in the official published values of the United Kingdom’s annual nominal and real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 1952 to the present. In general, we might expect estimates of nominal GDP to change for a few years after the initial estimate, as new data become available, and to then stay fixed. This does not occur with the United Kingdom (UK) data; instead, as this paper will show, estimates of nominal GDP going back to the very beginning of the historical data are regularly revised, and these revisions are significant in magnitude1. We also might expect estimates of historical real GDP to change only when the base year changes, so that estimates of real growth would be constant otherwise. This does not occur either; instead, there have been significant revisions, and in six cases they changed direction. That is, if the estimate was an expansion for a particular year, yet another publication showed negative growth. This paper presents and analyzes changes in reported estimates of nominal GDP and real growth rates.

Annual GDP estimates from the reports published yearly from 1959 to 2012 have been gathered for this study and are available from the author. Data were primarily collected from the Economic Trends Annual Supplement (ETAS) publication, which provided long run historical data. This publication was only produced in the years 1975-2006; for years that the publication was not available, the yearly “Blue Book” publication (titled National Income and Expenditure in its early years, and then United Kingdom National Accounts) is used. Where no single estimate of GDP is produced, and either an income-based or expenditure-based measure must be chosen, the expenditure-based measure was used. Note that no GDP estimates are included from the year 1978; this is not due to a gap in the data, but rather to a delay between publications of the Economic Trends Annual Supplement.



How are the Calculations Made?

One can be sure that the formulas, equations and programs used to compute GDP these days are numerous. With the report of the latest annual computations the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also published a table of 3,563 variables they may have used or constructed. In December, I downloaded this table titled BB_CSDB_DS. The data are annual from 1938 to 2011, and start with A4FK (ESA:PC:LIFLOW: Currency and deposits) and end with ZYBQ (Financial derivatives -CG-Asset). It is important to note that these are not all input variables2. There may be a newer version of this table, but I cannot find it by simple search of the ONS website. As you see in the table, for the early years there are no observations for most of the variables. For 1948, the first year for which the ONS publishes annual GDP, there are 231 nonzero observations and many of them are aggregates such as, Total Gross Final Expenditure (unaligned) and Total Actual Individual Consumption. Even for 1975, less than 25% of the variables have a value.



Number of observations in table BB_CSDB_DS

YEAR Positive Negative Zero Blank
1938 10 0 14 3539
1948 190 9 42 3322
1958 226 6 57 3274
1959 230 5 56 3272
2010 2903 347 313 0
2011 2452 273 238 600

The nominal aggregates can change because of a change in the way components are added up. The components can change because there has been historical research creating new data. Without being able to see this table for earlier years, I cannot know for sure if there were more or less variables or if the nominal values have changed3. For example, the nominal value for GDP in 1958 is different in every report from 1959 to 1974, starting at £22,493 million and ending at £22,843 million. After that it “only changes” ever two three years. For the 2006 to 2012 reports is stayed at £23,050 million4. To repeat, without seeing the tables use for construction in the earlier years, it is not possible to know why there were so many changes.

It is also unlikely that there have been 18 different sets of new data to use in the last 50 years that would explain how the growth rate between 1958 and 1959 changed so often.



Nominal GDP

Table 1A in the Appendix shows changes in estimates of nominal GDP over time. By looking at the years of maximum and minimum observations, between the 1960s and the last few years there have been upward revisions of up to ten percent. 49 of the 67 years that nominal GDP was estimated have their maximum estimate in 2006 or later. The magnitude of these changes is sizable: the mean difference between the maximum and minimum estimates expressed as a percentage of the minimum (shown in the last column of the Table) is 4.39%.

When revisions to historical data do occur, they frequently occur for most years at once. In only one year, 1998, there is a systematic decrease in historical GDP estimates, while the other instances of widespread revisions all involve systematic increases where almost all years show an increase in the estimate of nominal GDP. The 1998 exception may be attributable to the United Kingdom’s conversion to the European Union national account system in that year. These systematic changes frequently affect nearly all values; indeed, in 2006, the historical estimates increased for all but one year. Changes to historical estimates in between these major revisions tend to be small or non-existent; for instance, in the years 1969-1974, there are no changes to previously made estimates.



Real GDP

Table 2A in the Appendix show changes in estimated yearly real growth rates over time. As with the nominal GDP data, we note widespread and significant revisions to historical data, although the upward trend in these revisions is not as steady. Looking at the years of maximum and minimum observations, we see that in 54 of the 63 years that growth was estimated, either the maximum or the minimum estimate occurred at least five years after the initial estimate, indicating a widespread trend of revisions. In 58 of the years, the difference between the maximum and minimum estimates is at least 0.5%; the mean difference is 1.15%. In 31 of the years, the maximum occurs in the 2012 estimate, indicating that there were significant upward revisions in the most recent ONS data. All these revisions result in the real GDP for 1948 being reduced by 14% between the 2011 and 2012 ONS reports. 5



Quarterly Data

As the quarterly data (when available) have been revised at the same time as the annual data, the same issues of variation will be true. We have not evaluated all the quarterly data, but have looked at four periods where there was a reported business cycle.

In 1972, real GDP grew somewhere between 2% and 3.86% depending on which year of official data you are looking at. This preceded the worldwide recession of 1974 with major crashes in stock indexes including the FT30 that lost about three forth of its value.

The first and third quarters of the 1972 data estimate a slowdown in real GDP as seen in Chart 1 and Table 1. When these data were first reported in 1975, it was reported that there was a sharp drop of 1.38% in the first quarter and .76% in third. Over the years there were revisions. By the time of the report dated 2006, the forecasted drop of the first quarter was gone and the third quarter had an anemic, but very small increase of .22%.



Chart 1



Table 1

Year Data Reported 1975 1988 2006
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1971 Q4 13239 49717 134282
1972 Q1 13056 -1.38% 48949 -1.54% 134241 -0.03%
1972 Q2 13403 2.66% 49816 1.77% 137602 2.50%
1972 Q3 13301 -0.76% 49779 -0.07% 137909 0.22%
1972 Q4 13614 2.35% 51207 2.87% 140250 1.70%

Were the ups and downs of GDP in 1972 any indicator of what was going to happen? Did the reported changes have an impact on people’s behavior up to these crashes? One can only speculate. When did the 1974-75 recession start and how bad was it? In 1976 the ETAS reported that real GDP grew .20% in 1974 and fell 1.29% the next year. By 1989, that same report said real GDP fell by 1.82% in 1974 and continued to fall in 1975 by another .80%. The quarterly data also tell different stories depending on the year of the report. All six of them shown in Table 2 and Chart 2 show a decline in the first quarter of 1974 and that decline “becomes” much worse the more recent the report. By 1990, the drop was 2.52%, when it was only .84% in the 1975 report. All the reports show a rebound of the second quarter, but three of the reports show growth slowing in the third quarter and three show it increasing. All the reports agree on the negative growth of the fourth quarter.



Chart 2



Table 2

Year Data Reported 1975 1976 1982
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1973 Q4 13960 14118 26371
1974 Q1 13843 -0.84% 13967 -1.07% 26142 -0.87%
1974 Q2 14118 1.99% 14249 2.02% 26352 0.80%
1974 Q3 14461 2.43% 14448 1.40% 26721 1.40%
1974 Q4 14281 -1.24% 14309 -0.96% 26266 -1.70%
Year Data Reported 1988 1989 1990
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1973 Q4 53268 74713 74971
1974 Q1 52533 -1.38% 72968 -2.34% 73084 -2.52%
1974 Q2 53190 1.25% 74328 1.86% 74531 1.98%
1974 Q3 53972 1.47% 75049 0.97% 75123 0.79%
1974 Q4 53300 -1.25% 73668 -1.84% 74093 -1.37%

1979 has one of the largest volatilities in estimates of its GDP among all the years covered, with a range of 1.92% between the maximum of 2.85% reported in 1991 ETAS and the minimum estimates of 0.93% in the report from ten years earlier. Looking at the quarterly data in Table 3 and Chart 3, we see that this change is attributable to a significant decrease (roughly 50%) in the estimated contraction occurring in the first quarter of 1979. This is of particular significance given that 1979 was also an election year in the United Kingdom, and Margaret Thatcher rose to power in the May election in large part due to concerns about the economy, albeit those were motivated in large part by concerns about excessive union power rather than simple economic growth.4



Chart 3



Table 3

YEAR 1981 1988 1990
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1978 Q4 28674 58102 81148
1979 Q1 28223 -1.57% 57042 -1.82% 80577 -0.70%
1979 Q2 29352 4.00% 60083 5.33% 84215 4.51%
1979 Q3 28485 -2.95% 59089 -1.65% 82226 -2.36%
1979 Q4 28852 1.29% 59270 0.31% 82913 0.84%
YEAR 1991 1992
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1978 Q4 81371 81320
1979 Q1 80758 -0.75% 80739 -0.71%
1979 Q2 84346 4.44% 84320 4.44%
1979 Q3 82367 -2.35% 82342 -2.35%
1979 Q4 83129 0.93% 83098 0.92%

For the annual reports after 1992 stated it was a year of negative growth with a fall in output of .53%. However, later reports stated otherwise, and by 2012 it was decided that output for that year had increased by .86%.

These revisions also had an impact on the quarterly data as can be seen in Table 4 and Chart 4. The initial estimate of 1992 quarterly growth shows a contraction of .82 in the first quarter, followed by anemic growth in the second, with some improvement in the second half of the year. The estimate in a couple of years later shows a similar pattern, the most notable difference being a downward revision in 1992’s last quarter growth. Ten years later, however, the history has changed. Now the first quarter of 1992 has positive growth and the contraction in the second quarter rather than the first. The contraction is also not even half the size of that estimated in earlier years. As the January 4, 1992 issue of The Economist notes, the recession that had begun in Britain in 1990 was a significant issue of concern at the time, particularly as the British government faced elections in that year (p. 24). 2 Furthermore, an article in Glasgow's The Herald noted that worse-than-expected performance in the first quarter of 1992 contributed to predictions of prolonged slow growth and high unemployment.3 If the revised data had been available at the time, the timing of these concerns would have been different. We can only guess how much rosier the picture would appear from the perspective of 2012, where quarterly estimates are not available, but growth for 1992 is listed as 0.86% versus an initial estimate of a 0.47% contraction.



Chart 4



Table 4

YEAR 1994 1996 2004
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1991 Q4 134658 134838 188306
1992 Q1 133550 -0.82% 133957 -0.65% 188783 0.25%
1992 Q2 133624 0.06% 134025 0.05% 188128 -0.35%
1992 Q3 134250 0.47% 134671 0.48% 189194 0.57%
1992 Q4 134836 0.44% 134795 0.09% 190067 0.46%
YEAR 2005 2006
Real GDP Quarterly growth Real GDP Quarterly growth
1991 Q4 193968 200579
1992 Q1194622 0.34% 201017 0.22%
1992 Q2 193947 -0.35% 200527 -0.24%
1992 Q3 195046 0.57% 201521 0.50%
1992 Q4 195948 0.46% 202634 0.55%


Notes

1. Bill Martin, “The Puzzle Behind Britain's Lamentable Statistics,” Financial Times, February 23, 2007.

2. “In the Dumps,” The Economist, January 4, 1992, 24, http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/econ/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=ECON&userGroupName=uic (accessed March 13, 2013).

3. R. E. Dundas, “Kern Warns on UK Economy: Growth to Remain Slow,” The Herald, June 5, 1992, http://www.lexisnexis.com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/ (accessed March 13, 2013).

4. Norman Webster, “They're Off: Looks Like It'll Be a Rough Campaign,” The Globe and Mail, March 30, 1979, http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/econ/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=ECON&userGroupName=uic (accessed March 15, 2013) and “International News,” The Associated Press, May 5, 1979, http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/econ/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=ECON&userGroupName=uic (accessed March 15, 2013).

5. “Rosy Prospects, Forgotten Dangers,” The Economist, April 15, 2000, 15, http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/econ/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=ECON&userGroupName=uic (accessed March 25, 2013).



Table 1A. Range of Variation in the Nominal Observations of UK GDP as Reported in Various Bluebooks and Other Official Publications. (millions of pounds)

Year Maximum Observation Minimum Observation Bluebook Year of Maximum Observation Bluebook Year of Minimum Observation MAX-MIN MAX-MIN as % of MIN
1938 5,568 5,568 1962 1962 0.00%
1946 10,060 9,869 19841952 191 1.94%
1947 10,765 10,559 19841952 206 1.95%
1948 11,988 11,643 20061952 345 2.96%
1949 12,732 12,282 20061952 450 3.66%
1950 13,308 12,687 20081952 621 4.89%
1951 14,793 13,838 20061952 955 6.90%
1952 16,023 15,576 20061963 447 2.87%
1953 17,147 16,711 20061962 436 2.61%
1954 18,148 17,659 20061963 489 2.77%
1955 19,505 18,984 20061964 521 2.74%
1956 20,966 20,526 20061959 440 2.14%
1957 22,117 21,671 19851998 446 2.06%
1958 23,065 22,492 19851959 573 2.55%
1959 24,348 23,693 20081962 655 2.76%
1960 25,977 25,081 20081962 896 3.57%
1961 27,488 26,486 19861962 1,002 3.78%
1962 28,845 27,859 19891963 986 3.54%
1963 30,632 29,624 19861964 1,008 3.40%
1964 33,436 32,442 19891965 994 3.06%
1965 36,042 34,878 19891966 1,164 3.34%
1966 38,387 37,165 19891967 1,222 3.29%
1967 40,481 39,883 19881998 598 1.50%
1968 43,950 43,228 19851998 722 1.67%
1969 47,172 46,281 19891977 891 1.93%
1970 51,770 50,785 19901975 985 1.94%
1971 57,864 56,660 19881975 1,204 2.12%
1972 64,663 62,787 19941975 1,876 2.99%
1973 74,545 71,483 20081975 3,062 4.28%
1974 84,513 81,032 20081975 3,481 4.30%
1975 106,717 102,929 20081979 3,788 3.68%
1976 126,798 122,277 19851977 4,521 3.70%
1977 147,068 140,460 20121979 6,608 4.70%
1978 169,453 161,639 20121980 7,814 4.83%
1979 199,251 189,702 20121981 9,549 5.03%
1980 233,184 225,560 2008 1982 7,624 3.38%
1981 256,440 248,398 20121983 8,042 3.24%
1982 281,250 274,183 20121984 7,067 2.58%
1983 307,425 300,589 20121986 6,836 2.27%
1984 330,026 319,354 20121986 10,672 3.34%
1985 361,758 351,567 20081987 10,191 2.90%
1986 389,149 374,895 20081988 14,254 3.80%
1987 429,613 414,455 20121989 15,158 3.66%
1988 480,406 463,933 20121990 16,473 3.55%
1989 528,118 511,413 20121992 16,705 3.27%
1990 574,074 550,350 20121993 23,724 4.31%
1991 603,402 573,645 20121994 29,757 5.19%
1992 627,766 596,165 20121994 31,601 5.30%
1993 660,830 630,023 20121995 30,807 4.89%
1994 700,569 668,255 201296-7 32,314 4.84%
1995 741,846 700,890 201296-7 40,956 5.84%
1996 788,386 742,300 20121997 46,086 6.21%
1997 835,635 801,972 20121998 33,663 4.20%
1998 882,718 843,725 20121999 38,993 4.62%
1999 929,469 891,106 20122000 38,363 4.31%
2000 976,533 943,412 20082001 33,121 3.51%
2001 1,021,828 988,014 20082002 33,814 3.42%
2002 1,075,564 1,043,945 20082003 31,619 3.03%
2003 1,139,746 1,099,896 20082004 39,850 3.62%
2004 1,202,956 1,164,439 20092005 38,517 3.31%
2005 1,262,710 1,224,715 20122006 37,995 3.10%
2006 1,333,157 1,299,622 20122007 33,535 2.58%
2007 1,412,119 1,398,882 20122009 13,237 0.95%
2008 1,446,113 1,433,870 20092011 12,243 0.85%
2009 1,401,863 1,392,705 20122010 9,158 0.66%
2010 1,466,569 1,458,452 20122011 8,117 0.56%
2011 1,516,153 1,516,153 20122012 -


Table 2A. Range of Variation in the Annual Growth Rate of Real UK GDP as Reported in VariousBluebooks and Other Official Publications.

Year Maximum Observation Minimum Observation Bluebook Year of Maximum Observation Bluebook Year of Minimum Observation MAX-MIN
1949 3.72%2.97%201219810.75%
19503.66%2.85%198420060.81%
19513.64%2.09%197519901.55%
19521.08%-0.24%198519751.32%
19534.67%3.64%196420061.03%
19544.57%3.73%195919650.84%
19553.89%3.09%198919980.80%
19562.08%0.90%196220061.18%
19572.04%1.37%197519590.67%
19580.69%-0.50%201219591.19%
19594.68%3.68%201219621.00%
19605.83%4.44%198919621.39%
19613.40%2.13%196719621.27%
19621.46%-0.13%201219631.59%
19635.13%3.63%200419641.50%
19645.91%5.06%196719800.85%
19652.59%2.09%201219760.50%
19662.26%1.59%201219670.67%
19672.82%2.28%201219890.54%
19684.57%3.42%201219751.15%
19692.40%1.14%201219751.26%
19702.56%2.17%201219750.39%
19712.79%1.90%197719890.89%
19723.86%1.99%201219791.87%
19738.03%5.51%198019752.52%
19740.69%-1.82%197519892.51%
1975-0.51%-1.73%201219791.22%
19764.20%2.57%198120121.63%
19772.45%0.98%200519811.47%
19783.83%3.13%198619800.70%
19792.85%0.93%199119811.92%
1980 -1.35% -2.59% 1982 1984 1.24%
1981-1.15%-2.00%198519830.85%
19822.36%0.99%198419871.37%
19833.83%3.33%201219850.50%
19842.94%1.77%201219861.17%
19853.87%3.51%201219890.36%
19864.30%2.90%201219881.40%
19875.16%4.35%201219890.81%
19885.57%4.16%201219901.41%
19892.59%2.11%201219930.48%
19901.82%0.40%201219941.42%
1991-1.36%-2.24%200419930.88%
19920.86%-0.53%201219961.39%
19933.09%2.05%201219951.04%
19944.66%3.85%200119960.81%
19953.18%2.46%201296-70.72%
19963.11%2.35%201219970.76%
19973.86%3.04%201220060.82%
19983.84%2.24%201119991.60%
19993.66%2.11%201120001.55%
20004.46%2.88%201120011.58%
20013.15%1.93%201120021.22%
20022.66%1.73%201120030.93%
20033.81%2.25%201220041.56%
20043.26%2.76%200620080.50%
20052.77%1.84%201220070.93%
20062.85%2.60%200920120.25%
20073.63%2.56%201220091.07%
20080.74%-1.10%200920111.84%
2009-3.97%-4.90%201220100.93%
20101.80%1.76%201220110.04%
20110.76%0.76%201220120.00%



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*The data collection and programing of the computations in this paper were done by JulienLeider.
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1 One could expect that each year a new version of the GDP is presented, there would be a publication explaining why there has been a change. I have not taken the time to look at all the ONS publications for previous years, but can say that for 2012, they have not been clear enough to understand the big changes that took place between the 2011 and 2012 tables.
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2 Many of these are intermediate aggregates and computed values in the 2012 base year prices.
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3 If the ONS is using new data from the research of economic historians, as far as I can tell, they have not reported it.
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4 It remained the same at £22,853 million from 1989 to 1997, but has changed three times since then and for the 2006 to 2012 reports is stayed at £23,050 million.
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5 See: “New values for the UK GDP, are they better?” http://www.measuringworth.com/datasets/ukgdp/RewriteUK.php
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