You could feel the uneasiness among economists yesterday when the release of official statistics showed that the UK had just scraped enough oomph together in the final quarter of last year to stage a lacklustre return to growth.
Most economists had expected the no-growth bar to be cleared by some margin. Instead the preliminary estimate figure posted at 0.1% growth leaves open the possibility that further revisions could show the UK still in recession. Unlikely, but not an outlandish possibility.
Even if future revisions push the figure for GDP up a little, there is an increasing likelihood that economic growth could turn negative again in the first quarter of this year, particularly if much of the lost production caused by the nasty cold snap is not rapidly recouped.
Naturally, my eye went straight to the contribution provided by construction.
Here the statisticians estimated that the industry saw no growth, nor did it shrink in the final three months of 2009.
That means officially construction has not shrunk in volume terms quarter on quarter for three consecutive quarters. No recession here then.
It would seem that while new work output was sliding down a hole in the second half of last year, repair and maintenance work was filling the gap and more.
Frankly I can’t buy that without a stiff drink to befuddle my thinking. And I’d be interested in the results of any opinion poll on whether construction is in or out of recession.
The reason I find it hard to accept is not just because the data on repair and maintenance activity is extraordinarily difficult to collect. The squeals we hear from the Federation of Master Builders would seem to suggest that repair and maintenance work, the smaller contract stuff at least, is not that easy to find, given that FMB member feed heavily of refurb work.
It may of course be that larger firms are snaffling a greater proportion of the available repair work and also squeezing FMB firms out of new work. And this is a possible explanation that should not be overlooked.
But the pain seemingly being suffered by FMB firms does heavily support to the view of the FMB director general, Richard Diment, that building work is still deeply mired in recession.
Let us, however, accept that to some extent that there has been a switch in the balance of work from new work to repair and maintenance. This is good news for jobs and might help to explain the rather muted fall in the level of employment to date.
Roughly speaking, for a given amount of repair and maintenance work you employ about two times as many people. So a switch in the mix of output from new work to refurb should in fact see employment grow for no extra growth in construction output.
But no matter how many ways I try to square the official figures, my fears are that the construction output figure is inflated. If the figures are then subsequently revised downward and there is no compensation from revision made in other sectors of the economy, we might expect to find ourselves officially still in recession.
Unlikely, but if it did happen it would be a very ugly spectacle.
One thing’s for certain, there are plenty of people up and down the country scratching their heads and wondering just what the figures in this first stab at GDP really mean for the future path of the UK economy.