UK likely to have slipped into recession at end of 2023, experts warn

The Office for National Statistics is predicted to reveal that the economy contracted for a second quarter in a row. Credit: PA

The UK is expected to have slipped into recession at the end of last year, official figures are set to reveal tomorrow. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is predicted to reveal that the economy contracted for the second quarter in a row in the final three months of 2023. Most economists are forecasting a 0.1% decline in gross domestic product (GDP) between October and December. This would follow a 0.1% contraction in the previous three months, after a downward revision against the zero growth initially estimated. A contraction in the fourth quarter would mean the UK tipped into a technical recession, as defined by two or more quarters in a row of falling GDP. Experts have said that if confirmed, it would be a recession in the “mildest of senses” and is likely to be short-lived, with many preferring to describe the UK’s economy as having “stagnated”.

Even still, a recession would deal a blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has promised to grow the economy as one of his five priorities.

The fourth quarter figures will also reveal how the economy fared over 2023 as a whole, with expectations that it will have been weak. ONS estimates suggest the economy did not grow at all between April and June before shrinking between July and September, which has left the UK at risk of recession in the final three months. Ellie Henderson at financial services firm Investec said: “Our base case is that the economy probably did tip into a recession, although this would be in the mildest of senses: a better description of the trend might be stagnation.” Investec is pencilling in a 0.1% contraction in the fourth quarter, with weak retail data dragging on the all-important services sector and leading to a 0.3% fall in output in December.

Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, said a recession would likely be brief. Credit: Hannah McKay/PA

“In all, we expect that it was a tough end to the year for the UK economy, but 2024 is likely to have got off to a better start as household budgets look to have loosened a little," Ms Henderson added. “Indeed, the decline in inflation combined with still high wage growth will continue to drive real household disposable incomes higher, a key factor behind the expected recovery this year. “There will also be the added lift to post-tax incomes from the 2p cut to employees’ National Insurance Contributions, effective from January 6 – and, in all likelihood, more to come in the March Budget.” Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey has also signalled that a recession, if confirmed, would likely be brief, telling the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the UK economy was beginning to pick up.

Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Macroeconomics said that while he was also forecasting a 0.1% decline in the fourth quarter, the prospects were already brighter.

He added: “December’s GDP report … will create a negative first impression, but the reality is the economy is now on the up."

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…

Quarter-to-quarter growth in GDP is expected to pick up to an average of 0.3% this year, Mr Tombs said.

However, a technical recession may further add to the case for an interest rate cut, with the Bank already indicating it is more a case of when, not if, a reduction will come. Official data on Wednesday showing inflation defied expectations for a rise in January to unexpectedly hold firm at 4% was also seen as giving policymakers at the Bank more room to consider rate cuts, from the current level of 5.25%. While Mr Bailey said the latest data was “good news”, he said that inflation remaining unchanged “leaves us broadly where we thought we were going to be”. He did reiterate the Bank’s view that the key question has shifted from how high interest rates have to be to bring inflation down to its 2% target, to how long they have to stay at the current level, which he said was an “important change”. Asked by the committee whether he thought the UK could get stuck with inflation at the current level, the Bank chief reiterated that the rate is expected to return to the 2% target by the spring, according to its own forecasts. “It looks like we’re going to have quite a leg down between now and April-May time,” Mr Bailey added.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.