The UK economy continues to grow at a steady if relatively modest pace. Brexit uncertainties have led to falling business investment, while rising consumer spending has underpinned GDP growth. The global economy has slowed over the past year, with a number of risks clouding the outlook. Meanwhile, the Government’s budget deficit of 1.2% in 2018/19 was the lowest since 2001/02.
GDP growth remained steady in early 2019…
After slowing towards the end of last year, economic growth has stabilised in the first few months of 2019. GDP in the three months to February rose by 0.3% compared with the previous three months. This was the same as in the three-month period ending in January.
Growth came mostly from the services sector, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlighting, “a continued strong performance in IT.” It also noted that manufacturing had recovered after a weak end to last year, with output in the sector rising by 0.4% compared with the previous three months.
Compared with the same three-month period a year before, GDP growth was 1.6% in the three months to February. It has hovered around 1.5% since early 2018.
…as consumers continue to spend
Looking ahead, uncertainty looks set to continue with the UK and EU agreeing to delay Brexit. Most economists think the declines in business investment – declining in each quarter of 2018 – are linked to uncertainty over the Brexit process.
Consumers, on the other hand, have continued to spend. Despite high-profile difficulties of some high-street stores, official retail sales data from the ONS have been robust so far this year: sales volumes were up 5.0% in the three months to March compared with a year ago. Consumer spending has been supported by average real (inflation-adjusted) earnings rising by 1.5% on an annual basis, the highest it’s been since late 2016.
Global economic risks rise
In 2017, the world economy experienced its strongest year since the 2008/2009 global financial crisis. During 2018, however, a number of factors resulted in a slowdown. These included a ratchetting up of trade tensions, most importantly between the US and China, weaker Chinese and European growth, and global financial conditions tightening as the US raised interest rates.
Some of these concerns have diminished in early 2019. For instance, the Chinese economy seems to have picked up some strength and financial conditions have eased. Nevertheless, the world economy is at a ‘delicate moment’ according to the IMF in its recent assessment.. Slower world trade growth remains a concern, as does weak European growth. In addition, the US economy could experience a slowdown after a strong expansion in 2018 as the impact of tax cuts fades. The continued reliance on credit to fuel Chinese growth is also concerning to a number of economists, who worry about elevated debt levels in the economy.
The consensus appears to be that the world economic growth remains on track to improve somewhat over the course of 2019. However, as mentioned, there are several potential shocks that could derail this benign scenario.
Government budget deficit falls to lowest in 17 years
Turning back to the UK, the Government budget deficit in 2018/19 was the lowest recorded in 17 years. The Government borrowed the equivalent of 1.2% of GDP (£24.7 billion) in 2018/19 to make up the difference between what it spent and what it received in revenues. This was the lowest since a deficit of 0.4% in 2001/02 and down from a peak of 9.9% in 2009/10 following the financial crisis.
While the amount the Government borrows on an annual basis has come down, its debt – broadly speaking the stock of past borrowing – remains high. Public sector net debt at the end of 2018/19 was equivalent to 83% of GDP, compared with the pre-financial crisis debt level equivalent to 35% of GDP in 2007/08.
Podcast – UK public finances: Borrowing and debt, House of Commons Library.
Daniel Harari is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in UK and international economies.