The resilience of the British economy in the face of stuttering global markets will be tested this week, with the publication of official UK growth figures due on Thursday.
The first snapshot of GDP in the final months of 2015 is expected to show that growth held up at a modest pace, helping the UK outperform other advanced economies during last year as a whole.
Economists forecast that the figures will show growth of 0.5% in the final three months of 2015, slightly faster than growth of 0.4% in the previous quarter, according to the consensus in a Reuters poll.
But with worries about China’s downturn and the wider global economy clouding the outlook, there is significant uncertainty over the UK’s performance. Individual economists’ forecasts range from 0.3% to 0.6%. Weak retail sales figures for the key Christmas season released last week fanned fears that the GDP figures could disappoint.
There have also been warnings from businesses that the looming EU referendum is hurting confidence and forcing some firms to put investment plans on hold. With polls pointing to a tight vote, the pound has fallen sharply in recent weeks.
Howard Archer, an economist at the consultancy IHS Global Insight, said there were some factors helping to shore up UK growth, notably rising employment and a low oil price, which have both boosted consumer spending. But he added that, at the same time, the UK was “clearly finding growth hard to come by at the moment and facing significant domestic and global uncertainties”.
“We expect GDP growth in the fourth quarter to have been disappointingly limited again to 0.4% quarter-on-quarter. This would see year-on-year growth slow to 1.8%, the weakest since the first quarter of 2013,” Archer said.
At the annual World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Osborne called the UK a “bright spot” in the world economy. However, amid signs of Britain’s economy losing steam, he sought to shift the focus to external forces by repeating a warning that the UK faced a “dangerous cocktail of risks from the global economy”.
Economists expect that despite Osborne’s vow five years ago to rebalance the economy towards more manufacturing and exports, the UK’s service sector was again relied on to drive growth in the fourth quarter.
Manufacturers were hurt last year by a strong pound, which makes UK exports more expensive, as well as a slump in orders for machinery from the North Sea oil and gas industry after the plunge in oil prices.
Reports from the construction industry have also been downbeat, with the latest figures pointing to a drop in output in November amid warnings from building companies that a lack of skilled workers is delaying projects.
The data so far did not point to a marked rebound in the fourth quarter, said Philip Shaw, an economist at Investec, forecasting 0.5% growth in that period.
In a slowdown from the 2.9% growth rate in 2014, Investec predicts growth for 2015 as a whole will come in at 2.2% and will pick up only slightly to 2.4% this year. Shaw implied that growth could turn out even weaker. “The degree of financial market volatility at the start of this year highlights a more intense set of downside risks facing the economy,” he said.
Against the backdrop of a softening world economy and a slowdown in the UK, Bank of England governor Mark Carney sent clear hints to financial markets last week that interest rates would be held at their record low of 0.5% for many months to come.
It is Carney’s US counterparts who will grab market attention this week. After a tumultuous start to the year for stocks and commodities, all eyes will be on the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate decision on Wednesday. Having raised borrowing costs for the first time in almost a decade in December, the central bank is widely expected to leave policy on hold for now.
Investors will scour the statement accompanying Wednesday’s decision from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) for clues as to whether slumping oil prices and stock market volatility will slow the pace of anticipated rate rises this year. Expectations for a March increase have already dimmed in recent weeks.
“Given the turbulence in financial markets, we will be looking to see if the Federal Reserve offers any calming words in the press release accompanying the FOMC policy decision,” said James Knightley, senior economist at ING Financial Markets.
“Given the inflation outlook is increasingly benign and the concerns that market volatility will have a negative influence on sentiment and economic activity, we suspect the general tone will be to emphasise that policy tightening is not on a pre-determined path and that the Fed will be closely watching events.”
This article was written by Katie Allen, for theguardian.com on Sunday 24th January 2016 14.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010