As compared with the November forecast, the FPB now expects GDP to grow by 2.7% in 1997 (instead of 2.4%) and by 2.5% in 1998 (instead of 2.7%).
The Belgian economic situation has been affected by the world economy in two entirely different ways. On the one hand the Asia crisis has had a dampening effect on exports and on the outlook for business profitability. It is estimated that its impact will be 0.4% of GDP in 1998. On the other hand, the European economy in general, and the Belgian economy in particular, has recently shown signs of an upturn in domestic demand.
Activity growth turned out better than expected in 1997. The appreciation of the US dollar and UK pound meant that foreign trade contributed strongly to economic growth. Private consumption was higher than forecast. The NBB survey indicators for foreign order books would seem to show that exports may experience a lower rate of growth in the quarters to come, partly because of declining growth in world trade as a result of the Asian crisis.
It is increasingly likely that the growth in GDP for 1998 will be more balanced. The contribution of exports should diminish while domestic demand should gain in strength. This trend was already apparent in the second half of last year.
Consumer price inflation was 1.6% in 1997. This year, even a lower inflation rate seems likely. The underlying inflation rate has hovered around 1.25% in 1997, although import price inflation was about 4.5%. For 1998 CPI inflation is estimated at 1.2%, and the “health-index” should increase by 1.3%.
The impact of activity on employment in 1997 is still difficult to assess. The FPB estimates the increase in domestic employment at 0.6%. The impact on unemployment figures has been slight, due to higher participation rates. Employment should rise in 1998 by some 33,000 (or 0.9%), leading to a small fall in the unemployment rate. A proportion of the growth in employment can be attributed to specific employment programmes.
The better than expected economic performance should result in a lower general government deficit of around 2% of GDP in 1997. [...]