The annual Ulster Bank Ulster Fry Index was published today and it – shows that the price of a number of items making up a cooked breakfast actually fell in the year to the end of February, using the UK Retail Price Index (RPI).
New car sales have started 2019 the same way as last year, according to the SMMT figures for Q1, with a drop in new registrations. While the number of new cars sold in March held up relative to a year ago, the quarterly total of 16,676 was still down 3% (524 fewer vehicle sales) below the corresponding quarter in 2018.
There is an annual cycle in consumer finances. January, February and March are generally lean months for spending as wallets and purses recover from Christmas. The second quarter of the year sees preparation for the holidays, before a post-summer recovery. Spending then accelerates again, due to the end of year festivities, before the cycle repeats.
There has been a steady stream of negative news of late about consumer spending and consumer confidence. The latest car sales figures for Northern Ireland reveal that last month was the quietest for car showrooms in eight years. Meanwhile retail sales fell at their fastest pace in almost four years in February, according to the Ulster Bank PMI. And talk of food shortages and potential tariff-induced price rises if a no-Deal Brexit comes to pass will have done little to boost consumer sentiment. However, despite all of this, when we look at figures in relation to housing – the biggest discretionary consumer spending item of all – they appear to be at odds with everything else that is going on.
When you walk around the city, there are many very visible things that can give you a clear indication of how the economy is performing. The number of cranes in the skyline is perhaps one of the most obvious ‘finger in the air’ indicators; but other visual evidence includes the number of vacant shop units, the instances of sale signs in shop windows, and the number and types of new cars on the roads. But less obvious things are perhaps as important in understanding the economy, such as what the cranes are actually building, or things under the surface, such as the state of our infrastructure.
2018 will go down as the year of the backstop but it could also be dubbed the year of skills shortages, particularly in sectors such as hospitality and IT. In 2019, it remains to be seen whether the backstop comes into being, but one thing that is for sure is skills shortages will remain a feature and persist throughout the next 12 months and beyond.
The make-up of carparks has long been a good indicator of trends in the domestic economy, given that cars are the biggest discretionary expenditure item after purchasing a home. But the car market has also become a key barometer of what is happening in the global economy, and trends in the sector now need to be closely watched to understand what’s going on.
Consumer confidence both nationally and locally is not in a great place. Clearly the ongoing “political recession” isn’t helping the mood either. The good news, however, is that inflationary pressures continue to ease with the headline Consumer Price Index rising by 2.1% y/y in December. That marks the weakest rate of consumer price inflation in almost two-years. Significantly this welcomed move is coinciding with wages rising at their fastest rate in a decade.
Falling petrol prices were a key driver behind the latest downward move. Petrol price inflation slowed from 7.6% y/y in November to 1.5% y/y last month. Back in October prices were rising at 11.5%. This trend is set to continue with an easing in energy related inflationary pressures both in utility bills and petrol / diesel costs.
Significant price cuts to gas and electricity bills are expected to be announced later this month. Similarly, home-heating oil customers should see further significant falls in the coming weeks and months. Petrol and diesel prices have already fallen by around 2% in the first two weeks of January. Food price inflation also slowed dramatically during 2018. Having started the year at 3.9%, annual food price inflation eased to 0.4% in December. What does or doesn’t happen with Brexit (supply disruptions etc) could have a major bearing on food prices in 2019.
In the near-term, CPI inflation looks set to fall below the MPC’s 2% target in January with the annual pace of consumer price rises set to slow to 1.3% / 1.4% by Q4 2019. Against this backdrop and given the growing risks of a global slowdown coupled with the near-term concerns surrounding Brexit, the Bank of England isn’t going to be in a hurry to raise interest rates. 2019 could well see the Monetary Policy Committee sit on its hands and keep its Bank Rate at 0.75%.
Today sees the release of December data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – pointed to no change in new orders at the end of 2018. Meanwhile, business activity and employment continued to rise solidly, albeit at weaker rates than in November. Both input costs and output prices increased at marked rates again, but inflationary pressures showed some signs of easing at the end of the year.
2018 was the Chinese year of the dog, but in this part of the world, it will go down as the year of the backstop, when promises around the Irish border came back to bite Theresa May. Indeed, some have said that Brexit as a whole was the one instance when the canine caught the car and then didn’t know what to do with it.