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.
Today sees the release of February data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – signalled that business activity in Northern Ireland rose only fractionally in February. The near-stagnation in output reflected Brexit worries, with total new orders falling for the first time in 28 months, new export business down sharply and business sentiment turning negative. Meanwhile, companies lowered their staffing levels for the second month running.
Theresa May conceded for the first time Parliament would be given a vote on extending Article 50, or a no deal Brexit if the PM’s “meaningful vote” on March 12th is rejected. The betting markets cut the chances of a no deal exit at the end of March in response and EU figures indicated that some form of delay was inevitable. Meanwhile, MPs grilled the BoE on what it would do in the event of a no-deal.
The landscape for UK politics is changing. News that seven Labour MPs and four Conservative MPs have defected to form a new Independent Group highlights the current fragmented state of UK politics. PM May delayed the “meaningful” vote on Brexit to March 12th, adding to the uncertain picture for the UK economy, meanwhile the labour market powers ahead.
The UK economy almost came to a halt in Q4 last year as mounting Brexit concerns took its toll on business investment. However, consumer spending maintains its gradual recovery, driven by higher real incomes.
Following a path laid by the US Federal Reserve, who recently adopted a more neutral position towards monetary policy, the Bank of England’s February Inflation report clearly signalled no urgency to raise rates. The 2019 growth forecast was cut sharply. The main culprits were mounting concerns about Brexit plus the wider global outlook.