The UK labour market remains in rude health, a key support for the household sector. In contrast, US and Chinese retail sales disappointed. Meanwhile, German growth rebounded in early 2019 but the economy remains fragile.
When analysing economies the world over, the unemployment rate is arguably one of the most important go-to statistics. It enables comparisons to be drawn and inferences made on the relative health of different economies. Today’s labour market statistics revealed that Northern Ireland’s headline unemployment rate fell to a jaw-dropping low of 2.9% in Q1 2019. This represents the lowest unemployment rate on record and the joint-second lowest of all the UK regions. Not only does it compare favourably with the UK (3.8%), but it is also below the likes of the United States (3.6%), the Republic of Ireland (5.4%) and Germany (3.2%). Japan is one of the few world economies with a lower unemployment rate (2.5%) than Northern Ireland.
The old saying is that the US economy sneezes and the rest of the world catches cold. This phrase reflected the old influence and dominance of America in the global economy. However, since the worldwide recession a decade ago, China has had a spectacular rise and is challenging US hegemony. Indeed, the concerns now are about the Chinese Dragon spreading its economic germs.
US/Sino trade tensions are rising. US President Trump’s announcement of new tariffs on Chinese imports has prompted threats of retaliation by China, posing downside risks to the global economy as supply chains are disrupt and business sentiment suffers. Meanwhile, UK Q1 GDP data highlights the resilience of the UK economy.
In Northern Ireland, farming always takes centre stage during May, when all of the sector’s actors come together for the biggest show in town. Balmoral provides the opportunity to reflect on the performance of the industry since the last show and to look forward to the seasons ahead.
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.
Today sees the release of March data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – suggested that Brexit uncertainty pushed the Northern Ireland private sector into decline. Business activity decreased for the first time since July 2016, while the rate of decline in new orders gathered pace. This was also the case with regards to employment, which decreased to the greatest extent in almost six years.
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.
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.