Today sees the release of April data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – signalled that the Northern Ireland private sector moved deeper into contraction territory. Business activity, new orders and employment all fell to the greatest extents since the final quarter of 2012, with Brexit and a lack of government at Stormont impacting negatively on operations. Weakening demand led companies to raise their selling prices at only a modest pace during the month, despite continued sharp input cost inflation.
The Bank of England is more upbeat about the UK economy than three months ago, but its hands are tied by Brexit. Across the Atlantic booming employment coupled with a 50yr low in the unemployment rate looks set to keep a lid on expectations of a rate cut by the Federal Reserve.
The EU granted the UK a further extension of Article 50, effectively pushing out the cliff edge to the end of October. Meanwhile, latest UK data was mildly reassuring, consistent with continued sluggish growth in early 2019.
This week is likely to see the EU grant a longer, but more conditional, extension to Article 50 than the UK Government has requested. Back in Westminster talks continue to try to find a set of proposals that can be passed by the House of Commons. Away from the politics, most economic data has been disappointing.
UK PM Theresa May failed for the third time to get Parliament to ratify her Withdrawal Agreement. More indicative votes take place in the House of Commons today. The probability of cross party support for a customs union has increased, but it is still hard to see how the impasse is solved. The UK is now due to leave the EU on 12th April, but a longer extension of Article 50 looks likely.
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.
UK PM Theresa May’s meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement takes place on Tuesday and so far looks set for another defeat. If the deal is rejected, again, the votes that follow will offer Parliament the chance to go for a no-deal Brexit (almost certain to be rejected) or request an extension of Article 50 (most likely). Such pivotal events are likely to overshadow the Chancellor’s update on the Government’s finances in the Spring Statement.