This post may seem to be unusually pedantic, but please be patient
What do we mean when we say the economy is recovering from a recession? Do we mean it has started growing again, or do we mean it is returning to its pre-recession trend? Brief research suggests there is no standard definition, but Wikipedia is clear it is the latter:
“An economic recovery is the phase of the business cycle following a recession, during which an economy regains and exceeds peak employment and output levels achieved prior to downturn. A recovery period is typically characterized by abnormally high levels of growth in real gross domestic product, employment, corporate profits, and other indicators.”
The second sentence is crucial here. All economies grow on average: they have a positive trend growth rate. An economic downturn (or worse still a recession) involves the economy dipping below trend (or in a recession not growing at all). Typically whenever that has happened in the past, most economies make up for the growth they lost in the downturn, by growing more rapidly than trend once the downturn is over. This had certainly been true for the UK. We expect economies to grow over time because of technical progress, so it seems almost obvious that a recovery must involve above average growth until we return to something like an underlying trend.
Imagine a 5,000 metres race. Suppose an athlete trips and stumbles, leaving the main pack behind. If 5 minutes later I said the athlete was recovering, would you think this meant that they were getting back to their previous pace but still well behind the main group, or that they were getting back in touch with the main pack? I suspect you would think it meant the latter, and you would call a complete recovery when they were back within the main group. If you think about the main group as the underlying trend path of the economy, then a recovery in growth means getting back towards this trend path.
For this reason I would define a recovery from recession as above trend growth, and I think most macroeconomists would do the same. Here is recent quarterly growth in UK GDP per head.
The red line is the pre-crisis trend growth rate. You can see from this that only 2014 could possibly be called a recovery, and even that is a bit of a stretch. The UK is far from unique in this respect, but unlike other countries the UK economy has a pretty clear and unchanged trend growth rate since the 1950s. Until now that is. This global lack of recovery begs many important questions, which those who read economics blogs will be very familiar with: has the financial crisis had a permanent negative effect on productive potential, was the pre-crisis period really a disguised boom, are we suffering from secular stagnation, what role did austerity play?
Yet all of these important issues are sidelined in popular discussion if we misuse the term recovery, and instead describe any positive growth after a recession as a recovery. This is not a problem for economists, who tend to talk numbers, but it does matter for the public debate. I cannot help feeling that calling any positive growth after a recession a recovery also adds to a sense of disconnect people have, particularly when (as in the UK) there has really been a recovery in employment, such that productivity has been virtually flat. People ask how come there has been a recovery and yet my wages are still so much lower in real terms than they used to be?.
When the underlying trend may have slowed or shifted, then it becomes difficult to know what is or is not a recovery, but that is no reason to misuse the term. When we are talking about the past, then things should be clear. Here is the same data for 1981.
It is obvious from this data that the recovery from the 1980 recession only really began in 1983. The two previous years saw as many periods of below trend growth as above trend growth: given normal growth, the economy was effectively standing still. Unless, of course, you have a political point to prove. In 1981 the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher raised taxes substantially in the Spring Budget, despite just seeing 5 quarters of falling output per head. They increased taxes after falling output because they wanted to reduce the budget deficit. 364 academic economists quickly wrote a letter denouncing the policy - a Brexit like majority at the time.
In 2006 Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs wrote this:
“The economic recovery that the 364 said would not happen began more or less as soon as the letter appeared.”
This sentence has been repeated time after time by right wing economists and politicians: so often that it is now repeated as fact by BBC journalists. It has become what I call a politicised truth: something that is false but is perceived to be true by journalists who talk to politicians but not academics. And the statement that the recovery began as soon as the letter appeared is simply false if you use the term recovery properly: the recovery began a year and a half later. Had fiscal policy not been tightened in the 1981 budget, the recovery might have begun earlier than the end of 1982. In that sense, the economists were vindicated by subsequent events.
In 2010, George Osborne was warned by many academic economists - almost certainly a majority at the time - that embarking on austerity so soon after the recession was folly. But, just as in 1981, he wanted to reduce the deficit. It is not difficult to imagine that as he pondered these warnings from academics, he thought to himself that Margaret Thatcher got the same advice in 1981 and everything he had read said the advice was wrong because the recovery started immediately after taxes were increased. He would have been emboldened to do the same, with what we now know were disastrous consequences. Just two years later, GDP per head had lost another 3% or more relative to trend.
This is partly a story about the dangers of propaganda that you begin to believe yourself. But it is also about the potential ambiguity of one single word: recovery.