Light relief - Economics Weekly
Does June's unexpected fall in the rate of inflation herald the start of a retreat? It seems unlikely. The fall in sterling that has helped push inflation higher is still filtering through into consumer prices. And even at the lower rate inflation remains uncomfortably above wage growth. That's a considerable headwind for the economy.
Pause for breath. Inflation has risen further and faster than expected earlier this year so it is particularly welcome that it fell from 2.9% to 2.6% in June. Cheaper petrol provided the most relief as the lower oil price was passed on at the pumps. The squeeze is far from over though. Prices are still rising faster than wages and it’s likely that inflation will head back towards 3% later in the year. In the meantime this result will at least quieten some of the calls for interest rate rises.
Summer splash. The good weather tempted consumers to forget their financial woes and spend a little more freely in June. Retail sales for Q2 were up 1.5% on the first three months of the year, which had been particularly slow. The high street will welcome the extra business but consumers will need to be more careful with their cash later this year. Spending is now 5.6% higher than a year ago, far outstripping income growth, so households are currently saving less now than at any time. A lack of restraint now is likely to mean a more sudden stop later.
Steady. Between Brexit, elections and tax changes there have been plenty of events battering the housing market in the last three years but price growth remains stable, according to the official index. The ONS reported that house prices rose 4.5% in the year to May. That's cooler than the 8% recorded this time last year, but still substantially faster than income growth. There's been a change in the where the growth is coming from though. 12 months ago it was London leading the pack but now growth in the capital has slowed to 3%, below the UK average. Surveyors are most pessimistic about London's price prospects, so a further slowdown is likely.
Taxing. At this stage of the financial year the public finance data tells us more about what’s happening in the economy than whether the chancellor will meet his budget or not. Strong employment growth and weak pay rises combined to generate a reasonable income tax haul, up 3.6% on last year. A nearly 5% rise in national insurance contributions, as well as fairly static benefit payments support the strong labour market picture, too. That should all be good for balancing the Government’s books, but faster spending means that the deficit is actually £2bn higher already so far this year.
We’re not there yet. A better than expected growth performance from the Eurozone has prompted talk of the European Central Bank ‘tapering’ its quantitative easing programme. Last week’s ECB meeting did not yield any changes, just an indication to expect an announcement in the Autumn. The problem the ECB has is despite the improving economic picture inflation remains stubbornly low. A survey released last week of inflation expectations in the Eurozone showed a downgrade of forecasts and a predicted rate of just 1.6% in 2019 (it’s currently 1.3%). In the US there’s a similar story of inflation falling short of expectations. So, too, Japan. It had been hoped the world had escaped ‘lowflation’. The data suggest otherwise.
Fruitful. Of the 2m+ non-financial businesses in the UK only 24,141 (1.1%) are owned by businesses outside the UK. But they contribute almost 30% of the country’s gross value added. They’ve also made an outsized contribution to growth with their GVA expanding 32% between 2008 and 2015 (23% for UK owned businesses). The big contribtuer has been the non-financial services sector where GVA has grown a staggering 67% since the crisis. 4% of foreign-owned business are from Oceania and Africa, 10% are from Asia, 30% are from The Americas. The remaining 55% are from Europe.
Falling. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest report on inequality underlined a point made elsewhere in recent years. Contrary to popular opinion, inequality across the majority of the population has fallen over the last 25 years. This is due to a number of trends, particularly tax and benefit changes, falls in worklessness and the catch-up of pensioner incomes. Granted, the decline has yet to reverse the sharp rise that took place during the 1980s. And therefore income inequality remains higher than it was during the 1960s and 1970s.
What a difference….high housing costs makes. Median income in London more than 10% above the average across Great Britain. So far, so normal. But that’s before the capital’s notoriously expensive housing costs. Once that is taken into account Londoners’ median income is slightly below the GB average. In Scotland meanwhile median income is bang in line with the UK average. Again, factor in housing costs and the picture changes with median income 4% above the GB average. It means, on this measure, Scotland ranks second amongst all the regions behind the South East.
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Despite yet another strong set of job numbers there are still no signs of life in the wage growth figures. In response consumers are saving less and borrowing more. That's not a sustainable solution.
Hope fades that the UK economy managed to step up a gear in Q2. Most estimates now suggest quarterly UK GDP growth was 0.3% in the three months to June, barely an improvement on Q1’s disappointing 0.2%.