Friday, April 27, 2012

The last week has seen the publication of further evidence about the state of the UK economy. First came some promising data on sales, the headline figure suggesting an increase of 1.8% in sales during March. To some extent this was aided by freak conditions - as people brought forward their consumption of fuel at the end of the month owing to fears of a strike by petrol tanker drivers. But retail sales excluding automotive fuel rose by 1.5% over the course of the month, suggesting that relatively little of the growth was due to the unusual circumstances.

Next came the GDP figures for the first quarter of this year. These indicate that the economy slipped back into recession, with negative growth being observed for the second successive quarter. The overall growth rate in the first quarter was -0.2%, but this figure tends to conceal experience that differs quite markedly across industries. The construction sector, in particular, performed badly, with a growth rate of -3.0% in the first quarter. Services (which comprise a high proportion of total output in the economy) grew, but by only 0.1%. So the news on GDP has been very disappointing (albeit not surprising to readers of this blog).

More encouraging news has come in the form of a boost to consumer confidence, with the Nationwide reporting a marked jump in its indicator.

Yet, while the first quarter of this year has been one in which there are a few (very patchy) signs of life in the economy, the wider environment remains one in which there are many uncertainties and downside risks. Spain has become a renewed source of concern - the spread between Spanish and German interest rates increased in early April and shows no sign of coming down any time soon - this spread currently stands at more than 4 percentage points. At the beginning of March it was 3, and at the end of March it was 3.5. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Spain has risen to more than 24%, presenting a severe challenge to government policy and raising questions about the sustainability of the country's debt - which is already approaching 80% of GDP. Parallels with Greece are starting to be drawn - but Spain's economy is much bigger than that of Greece, and its difficulties are likely therefore to have larger ramifications elsewhere.

The overall position therefore remains one that is best described as gloomy.