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Shaun Richards
UK consumers leap out of their supposed grave yet again
6 days ago




Today we advance on the UK Retail Sales data which has various factors at play. Firstly the general theme is one of a fading of the growth we saw in 2016 as the growth in real wages also fades. On the subject of real wages I note that Sky News last night was comparing growth in March regular pay ( 2.1%) with April CPI inflation (2.7%) to presumably reinforce its point although of course there is a clear flaw there. Actually in March total pay growth (2.4%) was slightly higher than inflation ( 2.3%) as I pointed out yesterday but for some reason our official statistician’s use regular pay for real wages. I do wonder if they think Pound’s earned as bonuses are somehow marked in people’s pockets and bank accounts and treated differently.

Secondly there is the influence of the timing of Easter which was later this year and whether the seasonal adjustment allowed for that properly. The Confederation of British Industry or CBI certainly thinks that growth picked up.

59% of retailers said that sales volumes were up in April on a year ago, whilst 21% said they were down, giving a balance of +38%. This outperformed expectations (+16%), and was the highest balance since September 2015 (+49%)……37% of respondents expect sales volumes to increase next month, with 21% expecting a decrease, giving a balance of +16%

Indeed there was something rather familiar from last year so if it is the same let me say thank you ladies one more time. Your devotion to this area of the economy is hugely impressive.

Sales volumes grew strongly in clothing (+97% – the highest since September 2010), and grocers (+40%).

The details of this particular survey are as follows.

The survey of 112 firms, of which 57 were retailers, showed that the volume of sales grew at the fastest pace since September 2015 in the year to April, with orders placed on suppliers rising at the strongest rate for a year-and-a-half.

Today’s data

It would appear that my argument about problems with the seasonal adjustment concerning Easter gets another tick in its box.

In April 2017, the quantity bought in the retail industry increased by 2.3% compared with March 2017 and by 4.0% compared with April 2016.

This was a strong monthly performance and even got a little support in a way from my argument about the effect of inflation.

Average prices slowed slightly in April 2017, falling from 3.3% in March to 3.1% in April.

Slightly lower prices helping the performance? Maybe a bit and I also note that the measure of inflation in the retail sector seems to provide more backing for RPI data than CPI or CPIH.

If we look into the detail we see that they have a completely different view to the CBI.

Compared with March 2017, April 2017 has shown increases in the quantity bought and amount spent across all store types except department stores and textile, clothing and footwear stores.

I am not sure how a 97% rise for the CBI goes with an official data fall but there you have it! Meanwhile the march towards consuming online continues.

average weekly spending online was £1.0 billion; an increase of 19% compared with April 2016…….the amount spent online accounted for 15.6% of all retail spending, excluding automotive fuel, compared with 14% in April 2016.

Taking a perspective

If we look back we see that the figures for March which were so troubling at the time were revised from monthly growth of 1.7% to 2%. So they were not quite as bad, however even this month’s better performance is not so impressive on a quarterly basis.

The underlying pattern, as measured by the 3 month on 3 month estimate, showed a slight increase in April 2017 following a short period of contraction, increasing by 0.3%.

Thus it would be realistic to say that the surge of 2016 has gone and we are in a period  of little or marginal growth.

Looking Ahead

One area that is not going to be boosting Retail Sales is the buy to let industry if yesterday’s data from the Council of Mortgage Lenders is any guide.

Gross buy-to-let saw quarter-on-quarter decreases, down 2% by value and 1% by volume. Compared to the first quarter 2016, the number of loans decreased 39% and the amount borrowed decreased by 40%.

Of course that is comparing to the pre Stamp Duty increase peak but even the CML does not look especially optimistic.

The number of loans for buy-to-let house purchase advanced in March remained low compared to activity seen before the change on stamp duty on second properties introduced in April last year.

Also more general housing activity seems to have faded somewhat.

On a quarterly basis, house purchase activity was at its weakest for two years since the first quarter of 2015.

Although ever cheaper mortgage interest-rates did have an impact on existing borrowers.

By contrast, the number of remortgage loans advanced to borrowers was at its highest since the first quarter of 2009.

The only growth was seen in first time buyers which I have to say is not easy to explain.

Moving onto other factors I note that Markit’s latest survey has a two-way pull.

Higher living costs resulted in one of the sharpest falls in cash available to spend for two-and-a-half years in May. Survey respondents also indicated that their need for extra unsecured borrowing continued to rebound from the lows seen in 2016.

Of course regular readers of my work will realise that the UK has been on a bit of an unsecured borrowing binge recently. So perhaps more of the same is on its way. Somewhat oddly the surge in unsecured borrowing seems to have passed Markit’s economists by.

The survey measure which tracks people’s need to take on additional unsecured borrowing has rebounded so far this year, which marks an end to the steadily improved trend seen since late-2011

For newer readers the growth in UK unsecured credit has been of the order of 10% per annum for around a year now according to the Bank of England.

Car Finance

This seems to be continuing its rise and rise.

New figures released today by the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) show that new business in the point of sale (POS) consumer new car finance market grew 13% by value and 5% by volume in March, compared with the same month in 2016. In Q1 2017, new business was up 10% by value and 3% by volume, compared with the same quarter in 2016.

Whilst we do not know that the cars bought were the same as last year there is a clear hint of higher inflation there than in the official figures if we look at the gap between value and volume. Also the word “bought” needs some review as these days we essentially lease or rent them.

The percentage of private new car sales financed by FLA members through the POS was 86.5% in the twelve months to March, unchanged compared with the same period to February.

The demand does however suggest that Gary Numan may have been prescient all those years ago.

Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live
In cars

Comment

Economics is a very contrary science if it is a science at all. We should welcome today’s better numbers for the UK and indeed they go with the business surveys which suggested an economic pick-up in April. Let us hope that continues. However we see yet more problems for our official statisticians as the seasonal adjustment for the timing of Easter misfires yet again. I am afraid that blaming that old staple the weather simply does not cut it. From the BBC.

Warmer weather helped retail sales to rise by more than expected last month, according to official data.

The actual picture is complex as growth fades and frankly after last year’s surge it had to at some point. The rise in inflation has reduced real wage growth although the situation is as ever in flux as in response to today’s numbers the UK Pound £ has pushed above US $1.30 which would help trim future inflation rises if we stay there. The ying to the upbeat yang is however that as so often in the past we look like we are borrowing on tick to spend.

If we move to financial markets this week has taught us one more time that crowded trades are the worst place to be as @NicTrades reminds us.

Reuters said this week biggest trade in the world was shorting VIX via leveraged ETFs millions selling vol at 7.8% VIX is now 16%

ETF stands for Exchange Traded fund.