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Figuring Out The Figures

One hates to talk in clichés and even more, to be accused of writing them but do you know who said: “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”? It could have been the American writer, Mark Twain, but then he may have said it himself of British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. The list grows longer when you investigate it further.

Whoever was the real observer of this great insight, one can see why it was said. We tend to be a little too trusting that statistics at face value and that can be said of the latest set of figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and its analysis of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In its latest set of figures, the ONS states that GDP grew by 0.8% for the first quarter of 2014. This was the fifth consecutive quarter of recorded growth and not surprisingly, the coalition government is making the most of it. The fact that it is still 0.6% smaller than the pre-recessionary peak, could be said to be another matter.

The way we measure performance can be where doubts arise. Only this month we had the controversy over crime figures. The police insist crime figures have gone down but separately, there has been an admittance that a certain amount of ‘massaging’ (others might use the harsher term, ‘fiddling’) had occurred.

You don’t even need to fiddle to achieve a desired result. In the 1990s the John Major government decided to upgrade a number of polytechnics into full grown universities. After a discreet period, it then claimed to have doubled the number of students going to university. Who needed George Orwell and the Ministry of Truth with such sleight of hand adroitness?

We can prefer to rely on that other standby – anecdotes. We are hearing more stories of improvement; sales are up, enquiries are flooding in, a general feel-good factor. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it is a subjective mood that may not give the whole picture.

We need reliable figures to be able to plan ahead and the ONS’s performance has led to some degree of caution. In recent years its predictions, in particular, have been well wide of the mark, along with the government’s, with figures frequently marked down. In fact, 2009 (when Labour was still in power) showed a sub-standard series of figures that led many to question the accuracy of what was being published.

It is generally agreed that the situation has improved but because so much pressure is put on the ONS to supply the data, the UK ends up with GPD figures that often rely on 44% of business returns; hence the need to publish revised information. One only has to refer to the ‘double dip’ recession of 2012 that turned out not to have happened after revision. However, you can see why cynics might raise eyebrows when this happens.

We have had a couple of surveys to chew over as well that offer in the first instance, cautionary advice, and in the other, that things are still set fair.

The Federation Master Builders (FMB) warns that: ‘The economic recovery in the small to medium enterprises (SME) construction sector is under threat from rising building costs and material shortages…’ For its part, the Construction Products Association’s (CPA) latest state of trade survey indicates that sales of construction products rose in Q1 and sales are expected to rise even further during Q2 and over the next 12 months. One could argue that the FMB is pointing out that the ‘boom’ currently being experienced could get out of hand and we have already had warnings of skills shortages in the building sector.

But perhaps its as well to cherish this period of figures that appear to be going in the right direction, after such a shocking spell we have had to endure. Commenting on its own survey, the Confederation of British Industry, stated: ‘We expect growth to strengthen in 2014, underpinned partly by rising business and consumer confidence and supportive monetary conditions. Productivity and earnings are also expected to start recovering this year.’

I like that last sentence best of all.


Michael Gannon



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