Safe but boring? UK economy looks 'stable but sluggish,' forecast says

  • The outlook for the U.K. economy looks stable but the level of growth is low relative to both its historic performance and the rates of growth being achieved by its peers.
  • Economic forecasting group EY ITEM Club said Monday that it expects the British economy to expand by 1.6 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent in 2019.
  • However, it added that the growth outlook is "very changeable."
A production line at the McVitie's biscuit factory March 25, 2011 in Stockport, England.
Dave Thompson - WPA Pool/Getty Images
A production line at the McVitie's biscuit factory March 25, 2011 in Stockport, England.

The outlook for the U.K. economy looks stable but the level of growth is low relative to both its historic performance and the rates of growth being achieved by the country's international peers, according to a spring forecast.

Economic forecasting group EY ITEM Club said Monday that it expects the British economy to expand by 1.6 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent in 2019, little change from the projections in its previous forecast in winter 2017.

However, it added that the growth outlook is somewhat lackluster compared to similar economies.

"While stability is welcome, especially in the uncertain world we find ourselves in, it is nevertheless the case that the projected level of U.K. growth is low relative to both the U.K.'s historic performance and the rates of growth being achieved by the country's international peers," EY's Chief Economist Mark Gregory said in the report.

"The reality is that the U.K.'s economic performance is likely to be stable but sluggish, businesses cannot rely on the macroeconomy to drive growth," he added.

The report found there to be significant differences in the performance of various sectors in the U.K. economy, noting that retail and consumer-facing sectors — restaurants and bars, for example — faced continuing challenges.

Outlook 'very changeable'

The report comes amid ongoing negotiations between the U.K. and European Union (EU) about the country's withdrawal from the political and economic bloc and what the U.K.'s future relationship with the EU should look like.

As such, the outlook for the U.K. economy is "very changeable," EY ITEM Club said.

"Stable does not mean certain or static," Gregory warned. "There are significant shifts taking place both within and between sectors and there is a large amount of uncertainty around the outlook for the U.K. economy. Conditions could change very quickly as a result of circumstances that businesses have no ability to control."

The ongoing dispute between so-called Remainers and Brexiteers about this relationship took another turn last week when a majority of the U.K.'s House of Lords — the upper house of parliament — voted that the U.K. should stay in a customs union with the EU, something the government under Prime Minister Theresa May has said would not happen.

If Britain stays in a customs union it must agree to apply the same tariffs on imports from outside the EU and cannot negotiate free trade deals with other nations, as the government currently hopes to do once the U.K. leaves the bloc.

Uncertainty over Brexit has prompted some British companies to stall on making investment decisions but EY ITEM Club's chief economist warned against delay, saying that "the stable, if sluggish, base case forecast" should not be taken as "an excuse to sit and wait."

"U.K. businesses risk missing out on global growth and also risk failing to position for the future in the U.K. if they continue to wait for the clouds surrounding the economic outlook to clear," Gregory said. "Technology, shifts in consumer behaviors, and demographics are all reshaping the economic landscape, and Brexit is another uncertainty. Failing to invest now risks making the future even more challenging."