The FTSE 100's Resilience: Why the UK's Top Companies Outperform the Economy

The FTSE 100 index has shown remarkable resilience, often outperforming the broader UK economy. In this article, we explore the factors behind the FTSE 100's strength and examine why the success of these top companies doesn't necessarily translate into broader economic benefits for the UK.

The FTSE 100's Resilience: Why the UK's Top Companies Outperform the Economy
Photo by Alev Takil / Unsplash

The UK economy has been grappling with many challenges in recent years, from the lingering impact of Brexit to the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic and the more recent energy crisis triggered by the Ukraine war.

Despite these headwinds, the FTSE 100 index, representing the 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, has shown remarkable resilience, often outperforming the broader UK economy.

In this article, we'll explore the factors behind the FTSE 100's strength and examine why the success of these top companies doesn't necessarily translate into broader economic benefits for the UK.

The FTSE 100's Multinational Advantage:

One of the key reasons for the FTSE 100's resilience is the global nature of its constituents. Many of the index's heavyweight companies, such as Shell, BP, HSBC, and British American Tobacco, generate significant revenues from overseas markets[1]. This multinational exposure allows these companies to tap into growth opportunities in other regions, even when the UK economy is struggling. Moreover, the FTSE 100's export-oriented companies can benefit from a weaker pound, as their overseas earnings are worth more when converted back into sterling[3].

This global diversification has been particularly valuable in recent years, as the UK has faced challenges like Brexit that have weighed on domestic demand. By contrast, many FTSE 100 companies have been able to capitalize on growth in emerging markets and the US, offsetting weakness at home. This has helped to insulate the index from some of the worst effects of the UK's economic troubles.

Defensive Sectors and Recession-Resistant Stocks

Another factor contributing to the FTSE 100's outperformance is its sector composition. The index has a significant weighting towards defensive sectors like consumer staples, healthcare, and utilities, which tend to be less sensitive to economic cycles[2]. Companies in these sectors often provide essential goods and services that consumers continue to demand even during recessions. This defensive tilt helps insulate the FTSE 100 from the full impact of economic downturns, allowing it to weather storms better than cyclical indexes.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while many businesses suffered from lockdowns and reduced consumer spending, companies like Reckitt Benckiser (a consumer goods giant) and AstraZeneca (a pharmaceutical firm) saw increased demand for their products. Similarly, utility companies like National Grid and Severn Trent continued to generate steady revenues, as consumers still needed electricity and water regardless of the economic conditions. This recession-resistant quality of many FTSE 100 stocks has been a key factor in the index's resilience.

The Limits of Trickle-Down Benefits

However, the success of the FTSE 100 companies doesn't necessarily translate into broad-based economic benefits for the UK. One reason for this disconnect is the concentration of profits among these large, dominant firms. Many FTSE 100 constituents have significant market power, allowing them to extract economic rents and accumulate profits that may not be fully reinvested in the domestic economy[1][2]. This can exacerbate income inequality and limit the trickle-down effects of corporate success.

Moreover, the FTSE 100's multinational giants often have globalized supply chains and production networks, meaning their success may not directly translate into job creation or investment in the UK. Some companies may actively shift operations to lower-cost regions, further diluting their domestic economic impact[2][3].

This has been a concern since Brexit, as some companies have relocated jobs and investments away from the UK to maintain access to the EU single market. For example, Unilever, a FTSE 100 consumer goods company, recently announced plans to cut 1,500 jobs worldwide and consolidate its headquarters in London, raising fears about multinationals' long-term commitment to the UK economy[6].

Financialization and Short-Termism

Another factor limiting the FTSE 100's positive spillovers is the increasing financialization of the UK economy. Many of the index's top performers prioritize shareholder returns through dividends and share buybacks over long-term investments in productive capacity or research and development[2][5]. This focus on short-term financial metrics can come at the expense of broader economic goals like job creation, wage growth, and productivity enhancement.

The rise of the "Financier" archetype among FTSE 100 companies, as described by the McKinsey Global Institute[5], highlights this trend towards financial engineering over productive investment. While such strategies may boost stock prices and reward shareholders, they don't necessarily contribute to the long-term health and dynamism of the UK economy.

This short-termism has been particularly evident in recent years. Low interest rates and quantitative easing have encouraged companies to load up on debt to fund share buybacks and dividends. While this has been good news for shareholders, it has also left many firms more vulnerable to economic shocks and less able to invest in long-term growth opportunities.

The Productivity Puzzle

The UK's persistent productivity gap relative to other advanced economies constrains the FTSE 100's positive spillovers. Many of the index's top companies, particularly in sectors like finance and energy, have high productivity levels due to their capital-intensive nature and economies of scale. However, this productivity doesn't always diffuse to the wider economy, where many smaller and service-oriented businesses struggle with low productivity growth[4].

Addressing this productivity puzzle will require targeted policies to promote innovation, skills development, and infrastructure investment across the broader UK business landscape. Simply relying on the success of the FTSE 100 giants is unlikely to be sufficient.

This is particularly important in the context of Brexit, which can potentially exacerbate the UK's productivity problems by increasing trade barriers and reducing the flow of skilled labour. Overcoming these challenges will require a concerted effort to boost investment, improve education and training, and create a more supportive environment for business growth and innovation.

The Need for Inclusive Growth Strategies

Ultimately, the divergence between the FTSE 100's performance and the UK economy's struggles highlights the need for more inclusive growth strategies. While the success of these top companies is certainly welcome, policymakers must also focus on creating the conditions for broader economic prosperity.

This could involve measures to promote competition and reduce market concentration, ensuring that the benefits of corporate success are more evenly distributed. It may also require policies to encourage long-term investment, skills development, and regional rebalancing rather than overreliance on the financial sector and southeast England.

Moreover, addressing the UK's underlying structural weaknesses, such as its chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and skills gaps, will be crucial for boosting productivity and living standards across the economy. While impressive, the FTSE 100's resilience cannot substitute for a comprehensive economic strategy that prioritizes inclusive growth and shared prosperity.

One potential avenue for promoting more inclusive growth is greater employee ownership and participation in corporate governance. By giving workers a stake in their companies' success and a voice in strategic decision-making, firms may be more likely to prioritize long-term investment and job creation over short-term financial engineering[7]. This could help spread the benefits of corporate success more widely while improving productivity and innovation.

The Role of Government Policy

Achieving these goals will require a proactive role for government policy. While the UK has traditionally favoured a hands-off approach to corporate governance and economic management, the challenges of Brexit, COVID-19, and the transition to net-zero emissions all demand a more active and strategic state.

This could involve a range of measures, from reforming corporate governance rules to encouraging long-term thinking to invest in education and skills training to prepare workers for the jobs of the future. It may also require a more muscular competition policy to prevent excessive market concentration and promote dynamic rivalry among firms.

At the same time, the government must also be careful not to undermine the factors that have contributed to the FTSE 100's success, such as its global orientation and ability to attract international talent and investment. Striking the right balance between supporting domestic priorities and maintaining an open and competitive economy will be a key challenge for policymakers in the years ahead.


The FTSE 100's ability to outperform the UK economy reflects its constituent companies' global strength and defensive qualities. However, it also highlights the limitations of relying on a narrow set of large multinational firms to drive economic progress. The disconnect between the FTSE 100's success and the UK's broader economic challenges underscores the need for more inclusive growth strategies that spread the benefits of corporate prosperity more widely.

By promoting competition, long-term investment, and broad-based productivity growth, policymakers can help create an economy that works for everyone, not just the FTSE 100 shareholders. While the index's resilience is certainly a positive sign, it should not be mistaken as a substitute for the hard work of building a more balanced, dynamic, and inclusive UK economy.

Achieving this goal will require a collaborative effort between business, government, and civil society. It will demand a willingness to challenge entrenched interests and orthodoxies and experiment with new corporate governance and economic organization models. It will most likely require a shared commitment to creating an economy that delivers prosperity and opportunity for all, not just the privileged few.

The FTSE 100's resilience in the face of economic headwinds is a testament to the strength and adaptability of the UK's leading companies. However, it is also a reminder that corporate success alone is insufficient to build a thriving and inclusive economy. We can only create a more prosperous and sustainable future for all by harnessing the power of business to serve the interests of society as a whole.