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The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) Quarterly Economic Forecast has slightly upgraded growth expectations for 2024 and 2025, following a stronger start to the year. However, the forecast for 2026 remains unchanged.

The UK economy is expected to continue its recovery after the short recession at the end of 2023, but long-term growth is unlikely to be strong. After a weak 2023, growth for 2024 and 2025 has been revised upwards for the second forecast running, to 0.8% and 1.0% respectively, with 2026 remaining at 1.0%.

But the overall profile remains flat, as a poor outlook for exports acts as a drag anchor and high interest rates continue to limit investment. This comes as BCC surveys continue to show most SMEs are still not increasing their investment.

While CPI inflation should dip below the Bank of England’s 2% target this year, it is expected to rise again to 2.3% across Q4 2024. It is also forecast to be slightly above target in Q4 2025 at 2.1% and 2.2% in Q4 2026.

Small upwards revision to quarterly GDP

Growth in the first half of 2024 is now expected to be comparatively strong, as the economy improves back after the short recession. The ONS has estimated growth of 0.6% for Q1 and the BCC is forecasting 0.4% for Q2. However, this is not expected to last, with growth slowing to 0.3% in Q3, and 0.2% for the next five quarters after that. Overall, the expectations for 2024 and 2025 are both up by 0.3%, to 0.8% and 1.0% respectively.

But with global headwinds remaining, interest rates falling slowly and only a gradual expansion in consumer spending, the BCC expects growth to remain subdued – holding at 1.0% for 2026.    

Outlook for trade remains very weak

The poor outlook for trade is also holding the economy back, with both imports and exports contracting in 2024 by -1.9% and –1.7% respectively, before a gradual bounce back in 2025 and 2026.

However, with CPI inflation set to stay low and interest rates slowly falling, the BCC does expect business investment to steadily increase across the three years of the forecast. There will be a rise of 0.8% in 2024, 1.3% in 2025 and 2.0% in 2026.

Average earnings will continue to perform strongly

Average earnings are expected to continue to grow more strongly than inflation across the forecast period, with annual growth of 3.0% to Q4 2024, followed by 4.0% to Q4 2025 and 4.5% at the end of 2026.   This in unchanged from the BCC’s last forecast.

With core inflation proving stubborn, wages continuing to rise, and geopolitical uncertainty persisting, the Bank of England interest rate is expected to be cut more cautiously. The BCC now forecasts a base rate of 4.75% at the end of Q4 2024, then 4.35% for Q4 2025, and 3.95% by Q4 2026.

Unemployment rate expected to be slightly higher than previously expected

The unemployment rate is now expected to rise more strongly to 4.5% in 2024 and then 4.6% in 2025 before falling to 4.4% in 2026. This is a slight increase from last quarter’s forecast. But the labour market is set to remain historically tight as difficulty finding skilled staff and long-term sickness impact the available workforce .

Commenting on the forecast, Vicky Pryce, Chair of the BCC Economic Advisory Council, said:

“The BCC’s latest forecast shows there is life in the UK economy but if it is to gain momentum then it must be nurtured.

“With interest rates expected to be cut at a modest pace and pay outstripping inflation, businesses will be holding onto much of their money – even as confidence rises after the mini-recession.

“As we enter the final weeks of the general election campaign, businesses will be watching for politicians to show they have sustainable long term economic plans. These must play to the UK’s strengths and gives companies confidence.”

David Bharier, Head of Research at the British Chambers of Commerce, said:

“With an upgrade to GDP expectations, our forecast expects the UK economy to be edging towards slightly higher growth rates. With the recession of 2023 concluded and   interest rate cuts now expected later in 2024, the environment should become more stable for SMEs to invest. However, the margins are slim, and any further shocks could easily dent this recovery.

“Our research is clear about the issues UK SMEs have faced over the last four years – skills shortages, inflation that eats at margins, high interest rates that make borrowing harder, and trade barriers with the European Union.

“The BCC’s election manifesto sets our clear policies in five areas which could reinforce business confidence and put the economy on a more stable footing.

“A green-focussed industrial strategy is urgently needed, with action on skills planning, AI, business rates reform and improved trade relations with the EU.”

 

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