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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 05:13 GMT 06:13 UK
Measuring Britain's real economy
By BBC News Online's James Arnold

You're probably getting sick of it by now.

For the past few months, there has been feverish speculation over whether Britain is in, or approaching, recession.

A recession, as economists keep reminding us, is when output falls for two successive quarters.

But abstruse economic statistics are one thing. Most people's definition of a real slump is when the bad times start to lap up to their own front door.

With that in mind, BBC News Online offers a trawl through some unconventional - and far from scientific - measurements of economic performance, in an attempt to find out what's really going on.

When bad times bite, the theory goes, people trim back on non-essentials.

A golfer
Golf's glory days could be over

Expensive leisure pursuits are usually first for the chop.

But the picture is mixed. On the one hand, golf - the sport most redolent of smug prosperity - is starting to stutter.

After growing at an annual 12% for the last few years, growth in the British golf market has slowed to below 6%, according to Travel Trade Gazette, and some once-booming resorts are struggling to attract custom.

On the other hand, gym membership - currently a national 3 million and counting - is continuing to grow.

Holmes Place, one of the biggest gym operators in Britain, recently reported a 35% annual jump in profits.

VERDICT: Too close to call.

Travel, that bellwether of economic activity, is also slowing down.

A London black cab
Taxis are becoming ever scarcer
Government statistics show that annual growth in traffic levels has come to a complete halt this year, with goods vehicle traffic falling by an annual 2%.

At the top end of the market, things are looking bleak.

Manganese Bronze, the firm that makes most London black taxis, sold 2,483 cabs in the year to September, compared with 3,361 for the same period a year earlier.

As for the holiday trade, it's still a little early to tell what sort of season this has been - and figures are in any case skewed by the effects of foot-and-mouth disease.

But the Association of British Travel Agents reckons that overseas holidays grew by a paltry 2-3% this year.

VERDICT: Recession.

Booming sales are normally a sign of economic health.

But government figures showing that British alcohol consumption rose by more than 40% year on year in the first quarter aren't exactly cause for comfort.

BBC's Absolutely Fabulous
Boozing for Britain

Alcohol, like chocolate and a few other comfort foods, is one of the few goods that benefit from hard economic times.

At the same time, Britons' overall food consumption - measured in calorie terms - actually fell this year.

VERDICT: Recession.

Overall, the media sector is facing hard times.

But consumer magazines - especially those aimed at women - are booming.

Vogue covers
Some mags are avoiding the media slump
The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show that sales in the consumer mag sector grew by 13% this year, fuelled by a number of splashy launches, and the increasing popularity of in-store publications.

Britain's biggest-circulation consumer magazine, apparently, is a promotional magazine published by Boot's chemists.


It's no surprise that among the main beneficiaries of a slump are the discount retailers.

And they are prospering. Matalan, the country's biggest budget retailer, recently announced record profits, and is set to become a member of the elite FTSE-100 stock market group.

German discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl continue their advance into the country, and US wholesale giant Costco recently announced the opening of two massive stores.

Sales on Oxford Street
Going cheap, and selling fast

And pawnbrokers, those eager harbingers of depression, are on the rebound.

After nearly disappearing as a business during the 1980s, the spruced-up pawn industry is now worth a reported 100m a year.

At the same time, mid-market and premium retailers - most famously Marks & Spencer - are feeling the pain.

VERDICT: Recession

One of the most curious economic indicators is the surprising resurgence of that most opulent of habits - sending children to boarding school.

Prince William at school
Eton bounces back

According to the latest census from the Independent Schools Information Service, girls' boarding has registered its first rise in more than 20 years.

And boys' boarding, although still falling, is dropping at its slowest-ever rate.

This is not necessarily an indicator of out-and-out prosperity: most of the rebound can be attributed to the Harry Potter effect, and the lavish publicity given to media darling Prince William's days at Eton.

VERDICT: Mini-boom.

And finally, BBC News Online searched an online database of UK news articles for mentions of the words "recession" and "boom".

During the first eight months of this year, the word "recession" was mentioned 13,256 times, compared with 12,257 for "boom".

During the same period of last year, there were 12,327 "booms", but a mere 6,824 "recessions".

Mixed signals

So a mixed picture overall, then - arguably inclining more towards belt-tightening than splashing out.

But while the results aren't exactly conclusive, there is a serious point here.

Few people are satisfied with the way we and almost every other country measure our success - rises in gross domestic product, or economic output.

In a country like Britain, which produces more than its fair share of goods and services, and where far more people die from too much food than too little, a rise in output is not an unequivocal cause for celebration.

Economists would love to come up with some measure of contentment or security, an index that mixes our monetary wealth with factors calculating happiness, creativity or fulfilment.

Trouble is, no one has the foggiest idea of what such an index should comprise.

See also:

10 Sep 01 | Business
Your views: What's a recession?
06 Sep 01 | Business
UK interest rates kept on hold
05 Sep 01 | Business
Shoppers maintain spending spree
05 Sep 01 | Business
House price boom continues
15 Aug 01 | Business
UK jobless shows surprise fall
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