Every Cloud . . .
The gilt market has staged a modest rally over the past couple of weeks though this should not fool us: there remains a good deal of attention focused on the inflationary outlook. Data for January, out earlier this month, was entirely unsurprising on this front. Input prices were up by more than 20%, eclipsing the prior peak of +17.6% reached in 2011, CPI is almost back on target and RPI ex mortgage interest payments came in just shy of +3%. The ONS quite predictably singled out currency weakness and fuel costs as the main culprits.
But the weak currency is not all bad news as we were reminded with the publication of GDP figures for the UK this Wednesday. Export growth of over 4% on the final quarter of last year was celebrated by some of those on the Leave side of the Brexit vote; though there is considerable quarter-to-quarter volatility in this data it was, undeniably, positive.
In fact there was already evidence of this effect from industrial production numbers out for December a couple of weeks ago. The yearly IP increase of +4.3% was the highest posted since the country’s recovery from the Great Recession and smashed expectations. Looking beyond exports too there was good news from the personal consumption component of GDP, which hit a solid +0.7% for Q4 while the Q3 estimate was revised up to +0.9%, suggesting a Brexit bounce. Business investment – as highlighted by the Remain side – flattened off into the end of the year but the picture is unequivocally of an economy ticking along rather nicely and enjoying a boost from its currency-enhanced competitiveness.
Returning to the theme of inflation, there has been some coverage of the oncoming squeeze on real wages and that is a perfectly valid concern. However this cloud may not be quite as dark as all that. As of December both headline RPI and average earnings growth hit +2.6%, meaning that real wage growth was zero – not a supportive situation for the economy. But throughout the period from 2010-2014 real wage growth was negative, on several occasions falling below -3% (and hitting a nadir of -3.8% at one point). Over the same horizon annual growth in household consumption averaged 1% and broad GDP growth +2%. Today, RPI inflation would have to hit 5.6% plus to achieve the same depressive force on real wages. That is a risk and by coincidence exactly the peak reached in the autumn of 2011, but we are not there yet.
Some have turned to the second consecutive month of contracting retail sales as evidence of consumer weakness but again the short-term data here is incredibly volatile. The six month running mean for annual growth in retail sales was +4.9% as of January, a little less than double the average rate over the past 20 years. Might there be a sustained reversal in consumer behaviour? It’s possible – but the GfK consumer confidence survey actually rose for two consecutive months into January.
For investors, the big picture is therefore as follows. The UK economy is growing at a healthy rate, “despite Brexit”. This is in part due to the weak pound; a currency depreciation is a straightforward monetary expansion and this seems to have been forgotten. There is presently a risk that rising inflation will take some of the edge off the growth rate but on the basis of current data and recent history we ought not to be too anxious. Markets in some respects do appear complacent about the risk of more seriously damaging price behaviour – but that is another story.