This week has provided markets with a crucial insight into the UK economy with the release of inflation, jobs and retail sales figures. Those numbers are so important because they have an array of signals and consequences. Let’s take a look at how the UK economy is faring and what these data points mean for the Bank of England (BoE) and local markets going forward.
The UK jobs picture soured somewhat in September, with a rise in claimants coupled with an upward revision to the August number. The figure of 18,500 claimants is the second highest monthly figure since mid-2017. Meanwhile, the August average earnings figure rose to 2.7%, which is not far off the highest level seen over the past three years (2.8%). Put this together and you have a warning sign against the BoE raising rates (rising unemployment claims), alongside a signal that allows the BoE to worry less about the problem of falling real wages seen throughout 2018. The issue of rising inflation is certainly a problem for the BoE, but as long as wages rise by a greater amount, that worry is mitigated to an extent.
With wages on the rise, a sharp decline in inflation has provided yet another signal that the BoE can rest easy for the time being, with consumer price index (CPI) declining from 2.7% to 2.4%; the joint lowest level since first quarter (Q1) 2017. Crucially, we also saw a sharp reduction in the core CPI reading, which strips out volatile elements such as food, energy, alcohol and tobacco items. The energy aspect is particularly important as this is an element which the central bank cannot do much about through the use of monetary policy. Thus, if the cost of petrol rises, the BoE would be foolhardy to think that they could mitigate that shift by raising rates. The fact that inflation has been declining with those more volatile aspects stripped out means that the BoE will take greater attention to the shift.
This reduction in inflation coupled with the rise in wages means that real wages are on the rise, taking some of the pressure off the BoE and lesseneing the chances of another rate rise in the near future.
The retail sales figure is often overlooked in terms of its impact on the economy, with the term retail typically associated with the small players in trading rather than institutional whales. However, in the economic sense, consumption is a huge determinant of growth, with household expenditure accounting for 60% of UK gross domestic product (GDP). Retail sales do not account for the total household consumption amount, yet it certainly has a significant impact on the total figure. The volatile monthly figure is less of an interest for us, yet with the yearly number declining to 3%, we are seeing continued stability following the recent recovery. That measure was below 2% for eight months between Q3 2017 and Q2 2018, so anyone worried about the declining monthly figure (-0.8%) today should look at the monthly trend to note that things are actually looking relatively rosy.
Taken in the context of the BoE, the recent recovery in retail sales will bolster the idea that growth could begin to pick up thanks to improving consumption. The rise in retail sales could point towards a strong Q3 GDP number, which could counteract any fears.
It is important to note that while the BoE has previously showed intent to normalise rates to some extent, given the threat posed by inflation, the impact of Brexit will always remain a key determinant of whether the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) can act. Easing real wages reduces the need to raise rates, while improving GDP prospects through the recovery in retail sales will prove that the economy could possibly handle another rate rise. However, the risk of a no-deal Brexit will loom large at the moment, making any action unlikely for the time being. A deal between the UK and EU would likely remove that barrier, and such a deal would make the pound more responsive to shifts in economic data. The decline in the pound this week has been partly due to the diminishing hopes of a deal at this week’s EU summit, but also a reaction to the falling economic data (rising claimant count and retail sales) and an easing on pressure for the BoE to act (rising wages, falling inflation).