Is Greece’s the longest recession in history?




The hardship suffered by the Greeks is evident in the jobless queues, the beggars and the rough sleepers.

According to one senior minister, the country’s plight is as bad as any depression.

“We are expecting 2013 to be the sixth consecutive year in recession,” says Notis Mitarakis, Greek shadow finance minister. “I don’t think there’s any other historical record of any country being six years in recession.”

So how does Greece’s ordeal compare with other downturns?

Graph showing Greece, Ireland and Great Depression

Economists differ over the definition, but a recession is commonly regarded as two consecutive quarters of negative growth (a fall in gross domestic product, GDP).

Given the lack of reliable data, no-one could ever identify with certainty the longest recession in history, but there have been some notable examples.

According to the Greek government’s own figures, the economy first contracted in the final quarter of 2008 and – apart from the odd quarter of weak growth – has been shrinking since.


This puts it in its fourth year of recession, although if you interpret the odd spurt of growth as the end of a recession, Greece has emerged from recession more than once and gone straight back in.

But the World Bank says the country had its first full year of recession in 2008, which makes 2012 – as the minister claimed – the fifth year.

Ireland’s economy first contracted in 2006, two years before Greece, and has had more quarters of negative growth than Greece, but the severe austerity programme in store for Athens suggests it will be some time before Greece recovers.

Dr Richard Wellings, deputy editorial director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, says GDP figures should always be treated with caution because they are revised and amended for years afterwards.

“Greece had positive growth [overall] in 2008 so we’re only looking at just over three years – 2009, 2010 and 2011 [so far]. But at best it’s going to be stagnant in 2013. If it leaves the euro, there’s a stronger chance of GDP growth in 2013 because that would enable a rapid adjustment process, although it would be a short, sharp shock.”

So even if Greece turns the corner, it is likely to have spent more than five full years with a shrinking economy, before the economy recovers.