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Economy in Brief

U.K. Retail Sales Fall As Confidence Craters but Bounces Weakly
by Robert Brusca  October 21, 2022

The GfK measure of consumer confidence in the UK rebounded slightly in October to a -47 reading from a -49 level in September- which is its all-time low. The two-point bounce is extremely small given the weak level of the September reading. The outlook for the period ahead, over the next 12 months, sees slight improvements in the household financial situation and for the general economic situation, although both continue to have extremely weak readings when it set against the background of their historic range of values. Both those readings are weaker historically less than one-half of one percent of the time. Both readings reach all-time lows in September and rebound weakly in October. The outlook for unemployment continued to be moderate and fell in October.

Retail sales are weak - Keep your eye on volume data
The background in terms of the consumer confidence is extremely weak. It's not surprising that sales in September fell by 1.5% in nominal terms and by 1.4% in real terms. Over 12-months nominal sales are up by 3.8%, while real sales - sales volumes- are down by 6.9%. Inflation has become an extremely decisive factor in understanding anything in the UK economy. For example, the ranking of the year-over-year sales rate has a 60.2 percentile ranking in its historic queue of data. That’s a moderate reading, above its historic median. On the other hand, the ranking of the year-on-year percent change in real retail sales (volume) has a 0.8 percentile standing- a standing in the bottom 1% of its historic queue of data. Clearly, to understand what's going the inflation adjusted data are the way to go - and these data are weak.

Sales volumes are weak, and weakness is accelerating
Retail sales data show a decline of 6.9% over 12 months, they show decline of 8.2% at an annual rate over 6-months, and a decline of 11.4% at an annual rate over three months. UK retail sales are slipping, and they're rate of decline is accelerating. The economy appears to be careening toward recession with consumer spending this weak it would be hard to imagine the economy continuing to expand. In the quarter to-date retail sales volumes are down at a 7.3% annual rate; the volume number completes the economic picture for the third quarter. ONS has reported a DGP decline from July and August and has noted that growth of 1% in the economy for September would be necessary to prevent a quarterly decline. The recession cake appears to be in the oven and nearly baked.

UK CBI survey confirms weakness
Surveys of UK retail sales show marked deterioration in September compared to August, a Confederation of British Industry CBI) report shows. Retail sales for the time of year record a survey level of -10 compared to +12 in August. The CBI volume of orders measured year-over-year also shows a net negative -17 reading in September compared to +14 in August.

The queue standings for these CBI readings are still not as weak as the retail sales volumes themselves. The retail sales for time of year have about 45-percentile standing while the volume of orders year-over-year has a weak 18.6-percentile standing. The CBI survey does show encroaching weakness, however, the weakness in real retail sales appears to be much more severe than what's being picked up by the survey at least as of September. And the survey in September took a sizable turn for the worse compared to August, so it could be that retailers are just beginning to appreciate the depth of their problem situation.

Summing up
Economic conditions in the UK clearly are weakening. Inflation rate is high; over 3-months (using the HICP as a benchmark) inflation is up by 6% and while that's down from the year-over-year pace of 10.1% it's still a high inflation rate and, in September, the measure advanced by 0.4% month-to-month not an indication that pressures are cooling very much. However, the Bank of England has a difficult job because the inflation rate is high and yet the economy is cooling – on the brink of recession. This will call for a very careful modulation of policy to control rising inflation and not to exacerbate the economic slide that appears to be underway. The UK also has political leadership problems: the recent resignation of the Prime Minister just set a record for the shortest term in the history of British politics. Now the government needs to reconvene and pick a new leader at a time that economic conditions are difficult and their choices, once again, are going to be contentious. The UK finds itself between a rock and a hard place at a time that global inflation is high, the global economy is sliding, there's a war in Ukraine, and energy prices continue to hover at high levels. It's not an enviable situation but it is what they face – a lot of tough choices.

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