The Polish economy is slowing down. From 5.2% in 2018 down to 4.2% last year, with an expectation of around 3% growth this year. Q3 2019 y-o-y GDP growth at 3.9% shows a considerable deceleration compared to Q2, when GDP grew by 4.6% at an annual rate.
The return of inflation continues to threaten the economy. The December CPI figure of 3.4% shocked the market, yet the National Bank of Poland kept interest rates on hold (the expectation is that in the run-up to the presidential election there will be political pressure to keep them low.
The construction sector, which had been growing at double-digit rates for the past two years, has slowed down noticeably; this was most marked in infrastructure projects.
The big picture however, remains optimistic – there’s no hint of recession. Poland’s economy has grown for 28 years without a single quarter of contraction. The growth rate has averaged 4.2% a year; the economy continued to grow throughout the global economic crisis. Poland’s growth passed the peak of its current economic cycle, with year-on-year GDP growth peaking at 5.3% in Q2 2018.
Although growth is clearly slowing down, there are no fears of a sudden slump, rather expectations of a downturn. Concerns remain about Poland’s export performance with lower demand in its main markets including Germany and the UK, although both are expected to grow at a slow pace in 2020 rather than contract.
Driving the economy is consumer consumption, with social transfers playing a prominent role. Under 26s no longer have to pay personal income tax (as of August 2019); pensioners will receive a one-off bonus payment of 1,500zł ahead of the presidential election. Such hand-outs helped the ruling party win a second term in government, but will have a knock-on effect in coming years. But above all, wage growth in the private sector, running at an annualised rate of between 5% to 7%, is putting more money into the economy.
The promise of a balanced central government budget for 2020, with growth funding the increased social transfers, suggests that the government has found itself in a sweet spot to reduce inequality without further indebting itself. Whether this is sustainable in the long-term remains to be seen. Bearing in mind that local government debt is likely to soar as a result of budget transfers, overall public-sector borrowing is not in as strong a situation as premier Mateusz Morawiecki would like to portray.
Poland’s economy still has three stout legs; when one weakens the other two generally pull through. The first is infrastructure investment (largely EU-funded), the second is consumer spending and the third is export-led manufacturing.
Registered unemployment fell to a record low of 5.0% in October 2019, before a slight season rise the following months. Yet the Eurostat measure, looking at economic activity rather than the claimant rate, was 3.3% for December 2019, suggesting that over a third of those registered as unemployed are working in the cash-in-hand sector. Only Czechia (2.2%), Germany (3.1%) and Holland (3.2) have lower unemployment than Poland, according to Eurostat.
Concerted efforts by the Ministry of Finance to close down VAT loopholes (which resulted in 53.4 billion zlotys of foregone revenue in 2015) are proving effective. Deputy premier (now premier) Mateusz Morawiecki claimed to have clawed back some 15-17 billion złotys in 2016. Further tightening of measures against the grey economy have since been introduced; micro-businesses are now obliged to file their VAT returns online in the Single Audit File for Tax (SAF-T) format. Voluntary split-payment of VAT was introduced on 1 July 2018 (for B2B transactions only), causing concern about the liquidity of small businesses whose cash-flow will be affected. From 1 November, real-time reporting of VAT in the automotive services sector has been introduced; workshops, tyre repair, car washes. New fiscal registers connected to the tax office via the internet have become mandatory. Another sector in which cash-in-hand continues to be prevalent is beauty services – hairdressers, nail-bars etc, and here real-time reporting will also be introduced.
Concerns about the effects of political interference in the markets remain present among foreign investors. The law restricting Sunday trading, has come in force in steps. At first two Sundays a month, from March 2018. From this year, only seven Sundays a month will remain – one Sunday a quarter, one before Easter and two before Christmas.
An increasing worry among foreign investors regarding the independence of the Polish judiciary concerns the legal fair play in cases where they may be facing the Polish state or state-owned enterprise in court. This is not a major worry for foreign investors who have come to Poland to make car parts or process food, where the client/customer is in the private sector. But foreign-owned construction firms engaged in major infrastructure projects for the Polish state are concerned that court cases between them and the public-sector contractor might not be fairly adjudicated. There is a feeling that courts where the judges take instruction from politicians will be biased against foreign capital; this will dissuade foreign-owned companies from taking on public tenders and leaving them to Polish firms. With less competition on the market, the Polish taxpayer may end up paying more for infrastructure projects of lower quality, delivered late. A casual observer will be able to see just how much faster and cost-effective are construction projects run by the private sector compared to the public sector. The former can replace a derelict city-centre block of flats with a brand-new hotel building in the space of 11 months, while the latter is unable to put a viaduct across a railway line in three years.
The construction sector also has issues with ease of obtaining planning permissions and poor public procurement procedures. The latter is a problem across most firms that do business with the public sector, and a reason why few foreign firms in Poland do so.
Remaining sectors of the economy, however, feel generally untroubled by political risk, and inward investment from the UK looks likely to rise as investors seek a high-skilled but lower-cost labour force within the EU. BPCC members in sectors such as HR and real estate report rising interest among UK-based businesses with US, Japanese, South Korean or Indian capital looking for a secure base within the EU. Brexit-related worries are also prompting British businesses to consider Poland as a location for continental EU markets.
Questions that investors will be looking at closely: will Poland’s 2020 budget be able to withstand the higher social costs of the 500+ child-benefits programme, a lower retirement age and new pre-election social giveaways? Will the prime minister’s plans to simplify bureaucratic procedures for small business boost growth and counterbalance the additional social costs? Will the impending departure from the single European market of Poland’s third-largest export destination hit its industrial production and GDP? Will the Ministry of Digital Affairs be able to deliver an ambitious e-administration project?
Looking ahead for the next 15-20 years, Poland will only continue to grow at a faster pace than Western Europe if it innovates; to do so effectively, Poland needs to reform its entire education system (from primary to tertiary) and build an eco-system that encourages entrepreneurship, investment in home-grown innovation that can be commercialised, and strong links between academia and business. Otherwise, Poland will be primarily a destination for outsourced work – of increasing value-added, granted – but still doing work for others rather than creating something new itself.
Poland will have received over €83 billion from Brussels in the form of structural and cohesion funds for the 2014-2020 EU budget perspective, of which some €28 billion has been earmarked for transport infrastructure (with a strong focus on rail). This – like money from the 2007-2013 budget – will have a significant positive impact on the Polish economy, and will greatly improve transport and logistics around the country, to the benefit of business. Complicated and less-than-transparent public procurement procedures – in particular a focus on lowest price and an appeals culture – means that foreign construction companies are less attracted to public infrastructure projects.
Manufacturing output bounced back from a low in the autumn of 2016; mainly driven by exports. But being Germany’s manufacturing outsourcing backyard, Poland’s industrial production is heavily dependent on Germany's export-led economy. Germany now accounts for 27.3% of all Polish exports; there are concerns that protectionist tendencies in the US and around the world will slow down the growth of German exports – and the Polish components that feed into it. At the same time, eurozone growth is slowing noticeably.
Trade figures for the first three quarters of 2019 show Poland with a wafer-thin surplus of €800m on exports of goods of €173.6 billion and imports of €172.8 billion.
Although Poland’s two-and-half-year deflationary run ended in December 2016, inflation had held remarkably steady with consumer prices rising between 1% and 2% over the next two years, but then accelerated ominously, hitting 3.4% in December 2019). Wages, however, had been rising faster, with 6.6% growth in the private sector pay in the year to September 2019. The statutory minimum wage increased again on 1 January 2020 to 2,600 zł (monthly gross) a massive 15.5% hike. Persistent and high wage increases are now beginning to work their way into the consumer price index.
[Note: The way Poland’s statistical office counts pay rises, industrial production and other indicators means that data is not collected from micro-businesses employing nine or fewer employees. This means that a true picture of average wages, productivity etc, cannot be gained as over 90% of businesses by number are not included.]
The Monetary Policy Council cycle of loosening money supply by lowering base rates from a high of 4.75% (May 2012), with ten further cuts between November 2012 and March 2015, since when base rates have stayed at 1.5% ever since. The notionally-independent central bank has taken a dovish stance, unwilling to rock the political boat ahead of the presidential election, even when inflation suddenly shot up to 3.4%
Poland’s largest age cohort, born in 1983, will reach the age of 37 this year (all 690,000 of them); this is Poland's demographic high-water mark. By contrast, the number of 17-year-olds, born in 2003, is a mere 350,000, the low-water mark. Then comes a weak ‘echo boom’. Over the next several years, the number of young people entering the labour market will continue to fall by an average of 17,000 a year, as it has done for the past decade or so. Some mild respite will be offered when the 2004 cohort starts joining the labour market between 2023-27.
However, the high quality of secondary education in Poland continues to encourage the BPO sector to invest in service centres in Poland, as does the high level of foreign language proficiency among younger Poles (Poland was ranked 13th out of 100 countries surveyed in the 2019 English Proficiency Index by language training company EF, with ‘very high’ proficiency – a level above that found in Belgium, Switzerland or Czechia).
Poland once again found itself in the global top ten in the latest OECD PISA survey published in December 2019, which looked at secondary education across the developed world. Polish 15-year-olds are consistently strong in maths, science and reading.
The shock to national accounts of large numbers of post-war baby-boomers hitting pensionable age in the early part of the next decade (65-year-olds born after 1953) will be made worse by the low number of Poles of pre-pension age in the labour market. Only 46% of Poland’s 55-64s are economically active (compared to 63% in the UK). The Tusk government raised the retirement age to 67 for men and women, though the current government has pledged to return it to the previous 65 for men and 60 for women.
During the four and half years from February 2004 to October 2008, registered unemployment in Poland fell faster than in any major economy ever in peacetime, from 20.4% to 8.8%. This level was unsurpassed until June 2016. The global financial crisis might not have pushed Poland into recession, but the economy certainly felt the strain. By March 2013, unemployment had reached 14.3%, a new high-water mark, before starting to fall, down to 5.0% in October 2019. In May 2018, we witnessed the historic moment when, on a like-for-like measure, unemployment in Poland fell below that in the UK. As of December 2019, by the Eurostat measure, Poland’s unemployment is 3.3%, the UK’s is 3.8%.
However, Eurostat says that Poland's unemployment, measured by economic activity rather than registered joblessness, stands at 3.2% (Oct 2019), suggesting that over a third of those signed on are actually economically active working cash-in-hand within the grey sector. By signing on as unemployed, and therefore being without income, they are eligible for free healthcare and social housing. The difference between the two measures in Poland is 1.8 percentage points; in the UK it is 0.0 percentage points! The difference in Poland is falling, however; in March 2019 it had been as high as 2.4 percentage points; it is a reflection of the government’s clamp-down on the grey economy.
Compared to the situation in the UK, western Europe and the USA, Poland's unemployment is lowest in the cities and highest in rural areas, with more than half of the long-term unemployed living in villages. There remain massive regional disparities between cities where unemployment is very low (Katowice 1.0%, Poznań 1.1%, Warsaw 1.3%, Wrocław 1.6%, Kraków 2.0%, Gdansk 2.3% in December 2019) while in many small provincial towns it remains stubbornly in double digits. Szydłowiec district, some 120km south of Warsaw, also in the Mazowsze province, holds the record at 23.0.%. Nearby Radom, a city of 200,000 people, also has high unemployment at 11.1%. Yet the fruit-growing Grójec district south of Warsaw has just 2.0% unemployment, eleven times lower than the rate for Szydłowiec.
Regional differences in unemployment will play in important role in the government's new industrial strategy, in which investment will be directed by subsidies and tax incentives towards areas of higher unemployment. Investors might wish to consider university cities such as Łódź (4.7%), Rzeszów and Kielce (both 4.8%), or Lublin (4.9%).
(Regional data from December 2019).
Although Poland had notionally signed up to joining the eurozone as part of its EU Accession Treaty, there was no mention of when, nor at what rate. To do so, Poland must first alter its constitution accordingly, which needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The current government is even more reticent than its predecessor to enter the eurozone; there is no pressure from the European Commission for Poland to do so.
The aftertaste of the euro crisis has put any discussion of Poland abandoning the zloty on hold for the foreseeable future. Poland, therefore, lingers on the fringes of the EU’s central core – and – importantly for its manufactured exports – it can control the competitiveness of its currency.
The zloty, which had been rising rapidly in value against the pound, the euro and dollar in the four years after EU Accession, suffered a major depreciation in the aftermath of the October 2008 financial crisis. Between August '08 and February '09, the zloty depreciated by nearly 40% against the euro. This made Poland far more competitive for inward investment and for export, and was one of the key factors that kept Poland out of recession.
Since February 2009, the zloty climbed back, though not to the unsustainable level of 3.20 zł = € experienced in August 2008. Throughout 2010 and into 2011 the zloty held steady at around the 4.00=€ and 4.50=£ marks. The euro crisis, however, have knocked the steam out of the zloty's stability. The wobbles on the markets caused by the threat of sovereign defaults in the eurozone and Hungary hit the zloty, knocking it back to 4.50=€ and 5.45=£. For much of 2012, however, the zloty has rebounded somewhat, stabilising at around 4.20=€ and 5.00=£ throughout 2013 and much of 2014. The Ukraine crisis barely affected the zloty's stability vis-a-vis the euro. However, uncertainty as to the economic decisions being made by the new PiS government weakened market sentiment towards the zloty, which reached a low point of 6.09 against sterling in early November 2015.
But then the Brexit referendum resulted in a dramatic fall in value of the pound. From June to October 2016 5.60 zł, to pound fell to 4.80zł, a 14% drop. This badly hit the margins of Polish exporters. The euro has held stable around 4.25-4.35 złotys, while the pound, subject to stronger fluctuations for political reasons, has hovered between 4.65-4.95zł, while election of a government with a strong parliamentary majority on 12 December 2019 boosted the pound above the 5.00zł mark. Brexit came and went without any perturbations, leading into the transition period, and the pound rose above 5.10zł. Failure to reach agreement with the EU by the end of December may result in the pound trading at 3.90-4.10zł.
Trade between the two countries has been growing since the end of communism, accelerating significantly since Poland joined the EU. However, the prospect of a hard Brexit (or worse, a no-deal Brexit) slowed down the growth of trade in 2018 from the usual robust tempo. In any case turned out to be a record year for British-Polish bilateral trade, although growth compared to 2017 was minimal.
The value of trade in goods was £15.8 billion, over five times as much as before Poland’s EU accession. In 2018, UK exports to Poland were worth a record £5.1 billion (up from £5.0 billion in 2017) while Polish exports were up to a record £10.7 billion (up from £10.5 billion in 2017). However, this is UK data in sterling.
Stockpiling in the run-up to the original date of the UK’s departure from the EU resulted in record months of sales for Polish exporters, though this effect went into reverse after the missed deadlines. Having said that, it is extremely likely that the bilateral balance of trade in goods between the UK and Poland in 2019 will have reached another record high, when measured in sterling.
Poland has a large overall trade surplus in goods with the UK (in 2018 it was €8.2 billion – only with Germany does it have a larger one, at €11.6 billion). Astonishingly, Poland also has a small surplus in trade in services with the UK. The value of Polish exports to Czechia exceeded that of those with the UK in 2018, pushing the UK down to third place from second. Positions were reversed in in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile the UK has slipped from eighth to 11th place in the ranking of Poland’s import sources; it remains Poland’s seventh-largest bilateral trading partner (after Germany, China, Czechia, France, Italy and Russia).
Author: Michael Dembinski
GUS, the government's central statistical office, has a small section in English that offers some indicators.
Central Bank of Poland