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Productivity slowdown: the new normal?

Why does economic growth remain slow in our country? Arne Maes, Economic Advisor at BNP Paribas Fortis sheds light on these issues.

Economic growth in Belgium has been slow for decades. Yet Belgium is not alone in this. Almost all industrialised countries have suffered the same fate and the underlying causes are largely the same.

For example, the gradual transition from a manufacturing to a service economy has led to a slowdown in growth in the countries concerned. Technological progress, which allows the manufacturing industry to produce more efficiently, has a much less marked effect on the services sector. This means that an increase in employment in services acts as a brake on overall growth. 

What about Belgium?

Labour productivity is growing at a significantly slower rate in Belgium than in neighbouring countries. Since the beginning of the crisis, the extent to which productivity has declined in the Belgian services industry, especially in non-market services, such as education, health and government activities, has been particularly striking. Naturally, another issue is that since the beginning of this century, the wages in our country have risen nearly four times faster than our productivity.

One explanation for Belgium’s poor performance could be the lack of innovative technology companies within our national borders. After all, the relative importance of these rapidly-growing sectors in the Belgian economy has waned in recent years, and with it its contribution to research and development.

Moreover, several trends which, historically, have contributed to economic growth are slowly drawing to a close. So-called global value chains, where multinationals ship their products from continent to continent as part of the production process, have gained in importance. In recent years, increased local specialisation has led to significant efficiency gains. As an economy that is strongly focused on international trade, Belgium has always been one of the pioneers in this respect, but comprehensive task specialisation has now reached a natural ceiling.

In addition, the increase in the educational levels of the Belgian population is slowly approaching its limits. As a result, we cannot expect education to make a positive contribution to growth, either.

The new normal?

Some of the developments discussed above are therefore irreversible, but growth itself is not, by any means. Fortunately, there are some ways in which this stuttering economy can be revived.

We need investment in order to improve our long-term prospects. Companies need legal certainty and transparency. In this respect, the forthcoming review of the Belgian Dock Work Regulation Act and the Belgian Excess Profit Rulings tax scheme inspire little confidence.

On top of that, public investment has also fallen sharply in recent years, often under the guise of much-needed consolidation of finances. However, further erosion of the existing infrastructure must be stopped. Even in difficult budgetary times, projects with high added value pay dividends, especially at a time when interest rates remain historically low.

In addition, Antwerp and Brussels are both in the top five cities for traffic congestion. A redesigning of the existing network and financial incentives affecting individual car usage are absolute musts.

Despite some positive reports, the employment rate – at 67% – remains significantly lower than that in our neighbouring countries. Earlier this year, the IMF put its finger on the sore spot: in the fragmented Belgian job market, some population groups (older people, immigrants) are still finding it extremely difficult to carve out a space. For its part, in its recent country-specific recommendations the European Commission has yet again denounced Belgium's relatively inflexible wage setting. This means that further reforms are urgently needed. 

One thing is clear: the new normal is bringing with it other challenges. However, we will be able to kick-start higher growth if we focus on investments that pay for themselves and structural reforms.



Test it here: how sustainable is your organisation?

BNP Paribas Fortis' Sustainable Business Competence Centre (SBCC), which helps companies transition to a sustainable business model, has developed a test to help you determine your company's progress in achieving sustainability. You can set to work immediately with the results of this test.

As Belgium's largest bank, BNP Paribas Fortis wants to drive socio-economic development in our country. This development requires companies to transition to a sustainable business model. As this is not particularly straightforward, BNP Paribas Fortis wants to make its expertise available to its customers.

One of the SBCC's initiatives is a brand-new test aimed at corporates, SMEs and institutional customers. The test consists of 15 questions relating to the steps you need to take to become more sustainable: awareness, diagnosis, quick wins, business model and cooperation and innovation. Once you have finished the test, you will receive the results in your mailbox instantly.

The SBCC uses your answers to make practical recommendations for your journey towards more sustainable entrepreneurship. In addition, we have all the resources needed to guide you throughout your transition from start to finish:

  • technological expertise in high-tech, ICT, biotech, medtech, clean and green tech, and more
  • a network of companies and business associates
  • financial products and services that facilitate the transition to a sustainable model

Is your organisation ready for a sustainable future?




BNP Paribas Group, second quarter 2019 results

The business of BNP Paribas was up this quarter in a context where economic growth remained positive in Europe but slowed down, implying expectations of a continued low interest rate environment.

Director and Chief Executive Officer of BNP Paribas, Jean-Laurent Bonnafé:
BNP Paribas delivered in the first half an increase in net income at 4.4 billion euros. Revenues were up thanks to business growth in the operating divisions. Operating expenses were well contained and benefitted from the transformation plan, generating a positive jaws effect. The common equity Tier 1 ratio rose to 11.9%, illustrating the Group’s solid balance sheet. New digital experiences rolled out for customers are a success and the Group is actively executing its ambitious policy of engagement in society. I would like to thank all the employees of the Group for their dedicated efforts to achieve these good results.

One pager with the results
The press release



BNP Paribas Group, first quarter 2019 results

The business of BNP Paribas was up this quarter for the three operating divisions with in particular a gradual upturn in the business of CIB. Economic growth slowed down in Europe but remained positive. After the crisis in the markets at the end of 2018, the market context remained lackluster at the beginning of the quarter, but improved towards the end of the period.

Director and Chief Executive Officer of BNP Paribas, Jean-Laurent Bonnafé:
“BNP Paribas delivered a good level of result this quarter, at 1.9 billion euros. Revenues were up thanks to business growth in the operating divisions with in particular an upturn in client business at CIB. Operating expenses were well contained and benefitted from cost saving measures, generating a positive jaws effect.”

BNP Q1 2019 results 1

BNP Q1 2019 results 2

One pager with the results
The press release



Do companies really want a more sustainable world?

Yes, the success of our Sustainable Business Ateliers is good proof of that. Most companies are aware of their social responsibility, but some are in need of information. To help them on their way, BNP Paribas Fortis organises regular regional Sustainable Business Workshops. Last year, our bank organised two pilot sessions in Liège and Limburg and more recently it was the turn of Namur, Gits (in West Flanders) and Ghent. Other Belgian cities will be announced soon.


During the Sustainable Business Workshops the invited clients are inspired by the experts from our Sustainable Business Competence Centre, and by other clients who speak about the actions they have already taken with their business.

After the presentations, participants are divided into groups and share experiences led by a moderator.

How do clients rate them?

Feedback from the participants revealed that the focus on cooperation and networking opportunities are the greatest advantages of the Workshops. Those attending always include representatives of small, medium-sized and large businesses from a variety of sectors - a diversity which participants find highly enriching. After all, no single company can overcome all of the present challenges on its own. Companies will not only have to cooperate with one another, but also with the government, universities, startups, etc. to make progress.

According to the participants, BNP Paribas Fortis is also the only financial service provider that goes great lengths to support companies in the area of sustainable business, by analysing at which stage of the sustainable business path the companies are and by guiding them to use sustainability as an opportunity for their activities.

Do you want to participate in one of our Sustainable Business Workshops? Please contact your Relationship Manager for the practical details.

Not a client yet? And do you want to know more about the guidance we offer and the benefits of sustainability for your company? Discover what our Sustainable Business Competence Centre can do for you.

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