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British retail sales rise; BOE governor warns over sweet spot
2017/3/24 14:55:20 Source:Xinhua

LONDON, March 23 (Xinhua) -- British retail figures released on Thursday showed that inflationary pressures in the economy are continuing to build.

The upward pressure on prices was led by fuel, which has increased 20 percent year on year to February, according to the figures released by the statistical authority the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Other sectors also showed an increase, and the price deflator for February rose to 2.6 percent from 1.9 percent in January.

However, consumers are still keen to spend. The retail sales figures showed 1.4 percent growth in volume month on month.

Sales were most buoyant in the non-food retailing sector which contributed 0.7 percentage points to the 1.4 percent growth.

The food sector showed no increase in sales, reflecting the impact of the fast rising rate of inflation, which has been on a sharp increase since the Brexit referendum vote which prompted foreign exchange markets to trade heavily out of sterling.

The pound was worth 1.48 U.S. dollars on the night of the June 23 poll and fell sharply immediately and has remained low since, trading on Thursday at 1.25 U.S. dollars.

The impact of that devaluation in sterling value is felt in commodities prices for exporters and in imported items, particularly food, by consumers.

Consumers and their willingness to continue spending despite sometimes dire economic predictions has been the main driver of robust and unexpected British economic growth since the Brexit vote.

Paul Hollingsworth, British economist with Capital Economics, a London-based economic data analysis firm, said that with consumer demand having been the key driver of the economy's post-referendum resilience, signs that it had been fading, meant that this release probably attracted more attention than usual.

"Given that sales volumes had fallen for three successive months, some rebound had looked quite likely," said Hollingsworh.

The figures for the first quarter will be complete with the March figures, and Hollingsworth said that when those are revealed only a large monthly retail sales figures rise of over 3 percent could prevent the quarter on quarter growth entering negative territory.

These figures may bring about pessimistic forecasts for the British economy in 2017 and into 2018, but Hollingsworth said that with retail sales account for around a third of household spending, and with recent evidence on other areas of spending there is cause for some optimism.

Hollingsworth said: "With credit conditions remaining supportive, and consumers' confidence in the outlook for their own finances still quite strong, we expect overall household spending to slow this year, rather than collapse outright."

Such a confident view will bolster decision makers on the Bank of England's interest rate setting committee, who are likely to see it as evidence that there is no need for a further cut in the 0.25 percent bank rate to stimulate the economy.

Indeed BOE deputy governor Ben Broadbent, who sits on the rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) said in a speech on Thursday at London's Imperial College that though the depreciation in sterling had a negative impact on retail sales, it was also a stimulus to exporters.

Broadbent said: "The vote to leave the EU led to a big drop in sterling's exchange rate. One consequence is a rise in import prices and a squeeze on households' real income. We may already be seeing the impact of that squeeze on retail spending, which in real terms fell quite sharply around the turn of the year.

"While it's hit the income of households, however, the depreciation has come as a boon for many exporters. In sterling terms goods export prices rose 12 percent through the course of last year. This will significantly have boosted exporters' profitability and with it the incentive to invest in extra capacity."

Broadbent warned that this "sweet spot" period for the British economy may not last, and that its end might be heralded by the expected declaration by Britain of its formal intention to quit the EU through the Article 50 process coming next week.

But Broadbent warned that either the currency markets are right to have devalued sterling because they believe trade will become harder because of Brexit, or they are "wrong in which case sterling is likely to recover."

"The depreciation reflects beliefs about a change in the UK's future trading arrangements, but it's acting on an economy where those arrangements are for the time being unchanged.

"The result -- higher prices and profits but unchanged rules and costs -- represents something of a sweet spot for exporters and businesses that compete with imports," said Broadbent.

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