Retail sales rebound unexpectedly
Official data has revealed a surprise increase in sales volumes during January, although more recent survey evidence does suggest the retail outlook remains challenging.
According to the latest ONS data, total sales volumes in January rose by 0.5%, as shoppers sought to take advantage of New Year sales promotions. ONS said discounting helped lift sales at online retailers as well as jewellers, cosmetic stores and carpet and furnishing shops, although growth was also partly driven by an increase in fuel sales as prices at the pumps continued to decline.
Data revisions, however, saw December’s figure fall more sharply than previously reported, with updated data showing a drop of 1.2% from November rather than the originally estimated 1.0% decline. Darren Morgan, Director of Economic Statistics at ONS, commented, “After December’s steep fall, retail sales picked up slightly in January, although the general trend remains one of decline.”
This challenging environment was also highlighted in the CBI’s latest Distributive Trades Survey, with retailers reporting broadly unchanged sales volumes in February while expecting sales to fall this month. CBI Principal Economist Martin Sartorius said, “Whilst retail sales volumes were largely unchanged in the year to February, firms remain pessimistic about their business outlook.”
Chancellor receives pre-Budget boost
The latest public sector finance statistics revealed an unexpected budget surplus giving Chancellor Jeremy Hunt a little more leeway as he prepares to deliver his Spring Budget.
Figures released by ONS showed that UK public sector net borrowing (the gap between the country’s overall income and expenditure) returned to a surplus of £5.4bn in January. This figure, which was boosted by the highest self-assessed Income Tax receipts since records began in 1999, was significantly better than economists had been expecting.
As a result, total government borrowing across the first ten months of the current fiscal year now stands at £117bn. While this does still represent a large shortfall by historic standards, the figure is just over £30bn lower than the Office for Budget Responsibility had predicted when it produced forecasts for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in November.
This data does therefore appear to provide the Chancellor with a little more wiggle room as he sets out the tax and spending plans he will deliver in the Spring Budget on 15 March. Mr Hunt, however, has played down any suggestions of significant tax cuts recently saying, “It is vital we stick to our plan to reduce debt over the medium term.”