UK retail sales – the beginning of a slump?

Unusually I think it’s worth highlighting a monthly release. There is a lot of randomness in most monthly data and UK retail sales is one of the most vulnerable to monthly glitches, often because of seasonality problems. However, if you look at a 3 month average of sales the trend has been quite clear in recent years, until the last couple of months where it looks like everything fell off a cliff.

uk retail

Source: ONS, FX Economics

Now, it’s as well to be cautious in interpreting such sharp moves in retail sales, especially around the turn of the year when Christmas effects can be unpredictable. The plunge we have seen is really based on just a couple of months data. But as can be seen from the series, it is rare for the 3m/3m trend to move so sharply. If we see a similar story in March it would be fair to conclude that there has been a clear weakening in the trend.

Which leads me to the March data due for release tomorrow, Friday April 21. Looking at the screens today, the market median expectation for retail sales is for a m/m decline of 0.2% in the headline number, and a 0.4% decline in the core. Now, this seems to me to be quite a pessimistic forecast. The impact on the 3m/3m growth rate would be minimal, as shown below.

UK retail march

Source: ONS, FX Economics

Retail sales only makes up around 40% of personal consumption, but even so, a 1.2% decline in a quarter is quite a serious slump. Even if we assume the rest of spending carried on as before at the 0.7% q/q rate seen in Q4, then this would still mean negative consumer spending growth in Q1. As I was last month, I am a little sceptical that spending has been quite that weak. Last month we got a rise of 1.4% m/m, which was still far too little to prevent a sharp weakening in the 3m/3m trend, but was nevertheless well above the monthly forecasts. Markets saw this as good news, simply because the outcome was better than expected on the month, but it’s very hard to see how this sharp weakening in the retail sales trend is actually positive news for GBP. This month we may get more of the same. It would take something above a 3% m/m gain to prevent retail sales falling q/q in Q1. But a better than expected outcome of a 1% rise or so seems quite likely, as this would still mean a fall of 0.75% q/q. But surveys don’t suggest any major recovery, with the BRC survey showing the weakest quarter since May 2011 for non-food sales.

So we might get a knee jerk positive reaction because the monthly forecasts once again look quite weak and the m/m rise may be better than forecast. But any positive GBP reaction could prove a selling opportunity for GBP as the strength of the UK economy that Theresa May and the IMF have been telling us about in the last week looks to have come to something of a shuddering halt in Q1. Who knows, this may be another reason that May has called an election now. There are initial signs of a slowdown, and she may want to get an election in now in case they become more obvious in the coming months and years. We are in the sweet spot when it seems consumer confidence is still high, or at least was until Q1, exports are getting some support from a weak pound and there are as yet no negative consequences of Brexit to deal with. Things might not look so rosy in a few months.

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