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The Economic Background

Volume 129: debated on Tuesday 15 March 1988

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I start with the economic background.

The strength and durability of the economic upswing has now exceeded all post-war records. We are about to enter our eighth successive year of sustained growth, and the sixth in which this has been combined with low inflation. And, even without looking to 1988, the six years to 1987 have been the longest period of steady growth, at a rate averaging 3 per cent. a year, for half a century.

This performance compares favourably not only with our own past, but also with the economic performance of other countries. During the 1960s and the 1970s, Britain's growth rate was the lowest of all the major European economies. During the 1980s, our growth rate has been the highest of all the major European economies.

In 1987 as a whole, output grew by getting on for 4½ per cent., rather more than the rate of inflation which averaged 4·2 per cent. At the same time, unemployment fell faster than in any other year since the war, in every region of the country, and more than in any other major nation.

The plain fact is that the British economy has been transformed. Prudent financial policies have given business and industry the confidence to expand, while supply side reforms have progressively removed the barriers to enterprise.

Nowhere has this transformation been more marked than in manufacturing, where output rose last year by 54½ per cent. This outstanding performance was founded on a further big improvement in productivity. In the 1980s, output per head in manufacturing has gone up faster in Britain than in any other major industrial country, and we led the way once again last year. This is in stark contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, when in the growth of manufacturing productivity, as in so much else, we were bottom of the league.

The current account of the balance of payments is now estimated to have been in deficit last year by a little over £1½ billion, after seven successive years of surplus. This is well below the deficit I forecast at the time of last year's Budget, despite growth turning out stronger than forecast. The reason for the smaller deficit was the better than expected performance of visible trade, with exports of manufactures up by 84½ per cent. This continues the consistent trend of the 1980s, with British manufacturers maintaining their share of an expanding world trade—the crucial test of competitiveness—after decades during which Britain's share was steadily declining.

Looking ahead, I expect 1988 to be yet another year of healthy growth with low inflation; and there is every prospect that unemployment will continue to fall, although probably not as rapidly as last year.

The pace of non-oil growth is likely to ease from now on, returning to the underlying trend of the past few years. Output for 1988 as a whole is forecast to be 3 per cent. higher than in 1987, with the non-oil economy up by 3½ per cent. Business investment is forecast to grow particularly strongly, with a rise of 9 per cent.

As last year, inflation is forecast to end the year at 4 per cent. While this is still too high, it is a testimony to the soundness of our policies that the present strong and sustained upswing, unlike almost all its predecessors, has not led to any resurgence of inflation.

With growth in the United Kingdom economy likely to continue to outpace that of most other major countries, particularly in continental Europe, and with our oil surplus falling as North sea oil production declines, the current account of the balance of payments is forecast to remain in deficit this year, by some £4 billion, equivalent to less than 1 per cent. of GDP. Given the strength of the economy in general, and of our public finances in particular, not to mention our massive net overseas assets, I foresee no difficulty in financing a temporary current account deficit of this scale.

But the outlook both for exports and for jobs will depend critically on employers keeping their costs firmly under control. Unit labour costs in manufacturing scarcely rose at all in 1987. It is vital that employers do not let this slip, and keep a tight grip on all their costs, not least pay.

In my Budget speech last year, I warned that:

"Given the continuation of present policies in this country, the biggest risk to the excellent prospect I have outlined is that of a downturn in the world economy as a whole."—[Official Report, 17 March 1987; Vol. 112, c. 817.]

That remains the case. The dramatic collapse in the world's equity markets last October was not the second coming of 1929 or the harbinger of a 1930s-style world slump, as so many feared at the time—although it could have been a great deal nastier had the authorities in the major nations not responded in a prompt and appropriate way. It was essentially an overdue market correction which did little more than reverse the rapid rise in share prices

of the previous year. Certainly, business confidence does not seem to have been greatly affected, and growth in the seven major industrial countries as a whole this year is likely to be only slightly lower than last year.

But Black Monday was also a warning. The world's three largest economies—the United States, Japan and Germany — have made a number of the policy adjustments necessary to reduce the imbalances which have for so long afflicted them, and there is evidence that the measures they have taken are starting to bear fruit. But there is still a long way to go; and meanwhile there is the constant danger that the process of adjustment, and with it the world economy as a whole, could be gravely damaged either by further wild gyrations in the dollar exchange rate or by a lurch into protectionism.

Success in reducing these imbalances depends on countries putting the right fiscal and monetary policies in place, and keeping them there. But the necessary adjustments are much more likely to be achieved if the objective of greater exchange rate stability is given an explicit role in the process of international co-operation, as has been the case for well over two years now. I can assure the House that we shall continue to play our full part.