30 years of business trends data: The emergence of Britain’s ‘see-saw economy’ 

30 years of business trends data: The emergence of Britain’s ‘see-saw economy’ 

  • The last 15 years has seen the UK experience a ‘see-saw economy’ as a result of a series of economic shocks
  • The 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have all contributed to record peaks and troughs
  • BDO’s Optimism and Output indices fell to a record 30-year low during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns
  • The Employment index has remained fairly resilient since its record low in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, but is expected to fall more significantly in early 2023
  • BDO’s Inflation index now sits at its highest level in 30 years

The UK has experienced a ‘see-saw’ economy across the last 15 years, with further turbulence on the horizon, according to data released from business advisory firm, BDO. 

The special edition of BDO’s monthly Business Trends report marks its 30-year anniversary and tells a tale of two halves. The UK has experienced more volatile economic activity across the last 15 years, compared with an almost consistent period of economic growth in the 15 years prior. 

The Business Trends report focuses on four key indices, optimism, output, employment and inflation – using data from the UK’s main publicly available business surveys. Taken together the surveys cover over 4,000 different respondent companies, making up the most representative measure of business trends available.

Optimism and Output Index hit record lows during the COVID-19 pandemic

BDO’s Output and Optimism indices have stood in positive territory for much of the last 30 years, with two notable exceptions, the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across this period, output hit a record quarterly low of 55.58 in Q2 2020, the UK’s first lockdown. A reading of 95 or below suggests the economy is in contraction. 

Optimism fell to its record low of 75.90 in the same quarter. Prior to this, the lowest level recorded over the last 30 years was 80.03 in Q1 2009, during the depths of recession brought on by the financial crisis.  

Looking at record peaks, the picture is more varied. BDO’s Output Index peaked at 144.39, in Q2 2021 as the UK came out of its third and final lockdown of that period. In contrast, the Optimism Index hit a record high of 110.11 in Q2 2014. At this point both manufacturing and services sectors were exhibiting strong readings. Hiring intentions also increased compared to previous years as the UK rebuilt post-recession. 

Inflation currently stands at a 30-year high  

Over the last 30 years the Inflation Index has witnessed several spikes, none more severe than in the present quarter, with readings of 118.92. Prior to 2022, the Inflation Index’s highest point was recorded during the financial crisis, in the third quarter of 2008, reaching 114.87.

The Inflation Index reached its lowest levels in Q2 2015, measuring just 87.56. Readings below 95 were seen consistently between Q1 2014 and Q2 2016 as the UK experienced some political uncertainty and braced itself for the Brexit vote.  

Employment levels have demonstrated resilience since the last period of recession  

Employment has remained in largely positive territory over the last 30 years, with the exception of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. The Employment Index dropped to 90.90 in Q4 2010, coinciding with a major spike in the unemployment rate due to weak hiring intentions. Since this period the Employment Index has remained on an upwards trajectory, reaching a near-term peak of 114.34 in Q1 2019, when the unemployment rate was at a 44-year low. 

The COVID-19 pandemic saw employment levels come under significant pressure, reaching a low of 104.92 in Q1 2021, though remaining in positive territory. This decline recovered fairly quickly, with record levels of vacancies and hiring intentions in recent months. 

The third quarter of 2022 saw the Employment Index reach its all-time peak, averaging 114.77. However, September’s monthly Business Trends data marked the end of the 10-month positive growth streak for the Employment Index, as employers scale back hiring amid rising costs and fears of recession, this decline continued in October. 

Kaley Crossthwaite, partner at BDO commented:

“Since we started publishing our Business Trends report three decades ago, the UK and global economies have experienced a number of shocks. The ‘see-saw economy’ we’ve experienced across the last 15 years demonstrates the sheer impact events such as the financial crisis, Brexit vote and COVID-19 pandemic have had on the economic climate.  

“Whilst it is positive to see the resilience of UK employment levels, as the cost of living crisis continues and the country navigates a period of recession, the UK is likely to see a more significant drop in employment along with further falls in optimism and output.  

“Businesses will have been hoping for some reassurance and certainty from the Chancellor’s  statement earlier this month, but with major challenges including ongoing global supply chain disruption, the energy crisis and rising interest rates, much uncertainty remains.”  


Overview of the BDO indices:

The below table illustrates the Business Trends readings for representative quarters during three periods of downturn: the current cost-of-living crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the global financial crisis. 100 = average value. Above 95 = positive.


Q3 2022
(Cost-of-living crisis)

Q2 2020
(Covid-19 pandemic)

Q2 2009
(Global financial crisis)

BDO Optimism Index




BDO Output Index




BDO Inflation Index




BDO Employment Index




Note to editors

Accountancy and business advisory firm BDO LLP provides integrated advice and solutions to help businesses navigate a changing world. 

The organisations we work with are Britain’s economic engine –entrepreneurially-spirited, high-growth businesses that fuel the economy.  

We understand the ambitions and entrepreneurial mindset of those we work with and have the global reach, integrity and expertise to help people and businesses succeed.  

BDO LLP operates in 18 offices across the UK, employing 7000 people offering tax, audit and assurance, and a range of advisory services. BDO LLP is the UK member firm of the BDO international network.

BDO’s global network
The BDO global network provides business advisory services in 164 countries, with 95,000 people working out of 1,713 offices worldwide. It has revenues of $11.8bn.  


Emma Ordidge
PR Manager, BDO
Email: Emma.x.ordidge@bdo.co.uk