Remarks by Angel Gurría
17 October 2017, London, UK
(as prepared for delivery)
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to present the OECD’s 2017 Economic Survey of the United Kingdom.
When I presented our last Survey of the UK in 2015, the UK’s annual GDP growth was, at 2.3%, the strongest among G7 countries.
In April 2016, I presented our study on the economic impact of Brexit. An impact which is materialising gradually: GDP growth stood at 1.8% in 2016, and in the first half of this year annualised growth fell to only 1%, making it the weakest in the G7. Our Survey predicts a similar rate of growth in 2018.
The UK’s preparation for Brexit in 2019 is creating big uncertainties, and will continue to weigh on the economy, at least until those uncertainties are resolved.
It will be crucial that the UK and the EU maintain the closest economic relationship possible. This applies to the trade of goods and services, but also to the movement of labour, from which the UK has benefitted so much.
Despite this slowdown, the UK’s labour market has performed remarkably well. Unemployment is now lower than before the crisis, and the employment rate is the highest on record. Real wages, however, are on a downward trend.
Macroeconomic policies should continue to support the economy during this difficult period of negotiations. So far, monetary and fiscal policies have done a good job in countering headwinds.
Fiscal policy has been very flexible. Automatic stabilisers have continued to operate in full, the fiscal stance has been relaxed, and new buffers have been created to absorb future shocks. Fiscal policy should remain pro-active and the UK should implement productivity-enhancing initiatives on investment should growth weaken significantly in the run-up to Brexit.
Brexit is consuming a lot of energy, but it should not distract attention from long-standing challenges faced by the UK, such as sluggish labour productivity. Labour productivity growth has underperformed across the OECD for more than a decade. But there is also a large gap in the UK relative to other countries.
Chancellor, as you pointed out in your Autumn Statement last year, I quote: “it takes a German worker 4 days to produce what we make in 5”. A similar statement could also be made about Dutch, Danish, French, or American workers, who are also more productive.
The UK faces important regional differences. The South, and in particular London, is very productive, while the North lags behind. While many people have jobs, over one quarter of them have low skills, which holds back their productivity, and in turn their wage growth.
I am pleased that the UK government is working to develop a modern industrial strategy. This is timely, and should help tackle the North-South productivity divide that I have just described.
We need to find ways of boosting local and regional transport infrastructure, research and development, housing and skills. Devolution will also continue to play a role in tailoring policies and creating larger economic hubs, such as the Northern Powerhouse or the Midlands Engine.
Investment in education and skills is essential to help the poorest households and promote social mobility. Improving job quality is another challenge. Job security needs to be enhanced for workers on zero-hours contracts, and self-employment should be limited to truly independent entrepreneurs.
Chancellor, dear colleagues,
The UK will face challenging times ahead. But we should not lose sight of the tremendous progress that it has made in the aftermath of the world’s economic crisis. The UK economy has shown resilience and an underlying dynamism, and the UK has shown itself capable of adapting and innovating. Looking ahead, count on the OECD to continue to work with the UK, and for the UK as it designs, develops and delivers Better Policies for Better Lives.