Friday, July 24, 2009...4:10 pm

Yahoo: the perils of economic statistics

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Not sure what state the UK economy is in? Better not read the papers and newswires today, then – you’ll only get more confused.

Today saw the release of the UK’s second quarter GDP statistics. Hmm. How bad were they?

“Bad”, says Yahoo Finance, which takes its content from  news service AFP.

British economy sees record contraction

That kind of bad. 

Oh, but wait. Does that mean the second quarter GDP figures saw a record fall?

Well, the Yahoo story certainly seems to think so:

Britain’s economy shrank in the second quarter at its fastest yearly pace since records began in 1955, as the worst recession since the early 1980s tightened its grip.

Ooh. Scary.

But, hang on a moment. What does that actually mean?

How can a quarterly figure shrink at a yearly pace? That actually doesn’t make sense.

And when you look at the story more closely, it actually reveals that the decline in GDP for Q2 was 0.8% – much less than the whopping 2.4% fall we saw in the first quarter (though more than the forecasters’ prediction of 0.3%. But then, what do they know). 

It turns out that GDP had shrunk by 5.6% in the three months to the end of June, compared to the same period last year.

But actually, most of that fall happened at the end of last year, and then the gruesome first quarter of this year. The GDP statistics just released today actually show that the worst might be over for the recession. 

Things are still pretty grim. But this is like the messy emergency landing in a swamp, rather than the terrifying plunge from the sky that we had earlier in the year. And we’ll probably be in the swamp for a while, which sucks. 

UK_GDP_1955-2009This graphic from the Guardian shows that things are better this quarter than last. Though don’t be fooled into thinking the uptick on the graph means the economy has started growing again. That’s another pitfall of statistical representation. 

But it does clearly show that the worst news happened three months ago. 

What does this mean? 

Pretty much that statistics can be pressed into service for whatever editorial angle you like. In this case the angle is: we’re all doomed. Though I’m not sure why – normally that’s the cue for anti-government papers to bash Gordon Brown. That isn’t happening here I think. Maybe it just makes for a more dramatic splash. 

The more representative story – things are still bad, though getting less bad, but they’ll stay that way for ages – is both less dramatic and more depressing. Which is probably why Yahoo went for a different – and misleading – slant.

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