U.K. Household Gloom Deepens as BOE Predicts Retail Slowdown

  • As pessimism mounts, BOE sees retail sales slowing this year
  • Weaker pound, wages push up firms’ costs, squeezing margins

Rising prices are tightening Britons’ purse strings and deepening their gloom about the outlook for their finances, posing a risk to domestic demand in the economy.

Households are the most pessimistic about their financial prospects since 2013, IHS Markit said in a survey published on Wednesday. A separate report from the Bank of England showed that the pound’s 16 percent fall since the June referendum to leave the European Union is boosting inflation and damping retail sales, a trend that’s set to continue this year.

Sterling’s decline is also hitting companies, many of whom are struggling to raise prices enough to match the jump in raw material costs and maintain margins. Some firms -- particularly those with a large proportion of low-paid staff -- are facing an additional burden from the extra costs of implementing a higher minimum wage, which was introduced last year.

While the U.K. economy has fared much better than expected since last year’s Brexit vote, signs of an adverse impact -- mainly from faster inflation -- are emerging. Data on Tuesday showed Britain’s era of real wage growth is coming to an end, bad news for an economy largely dependent on consumer spending.

“A combination of rising inflation and subdued pay trends has forced households to recalibrate their expectations,” said Tim Moore, an economist at IHS Markit. “Stretched household finances will become a greater drag on consumer spending.”

Inflation above the BOE’s 2 percent target is posing a challenge to the central bank’s policy makers. They kept interest rates unchanged last week, though Kristin Forbes, one of its more outspoken officials, voted to raise the benchmark in response to price growth projections.

The outlook for officials is further muddied by two years of impending divorce talks with European leaders, which U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May plans to start at the end of the month. A lack of clarity around Britain’s future trading arrangements is weighing on some companies’ long-term investment plans, the BOE said on Wednesday, though it noted that investment intentions rose in the short term.

Recruitment difficulties rose slightly, the BOE report said, amid a shortage of skilled and experienced staff. BT Chairman Mike Rake said on Bloomberg Television on Wednesday that access to skilled labor is one of the challenges now facing firms.

— With assistance by Scott Hamilton

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