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UK economy avoids recession but businesses still wary

By:
Reuters
Updated: Mar 31, 2023, 09:15 GMT+00:00

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's economy grew in the fourth quarter of last year, official data showed on Friday, with a jump of business at travel agents and state support for soaring energy bills helping the country to avoided falling into recession.

People shop for groceries in south east London

By William Schomberg and Andy Bruce

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s economy avoided a recession as it grew in the final months of 2022, according to official data which showed a boost to households’ finances from state energy bill subsidies but falling investment by businesses.

With the economy still hobbled by high inflation and worries about a weak growth outlook, gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 0.1% between October and December after a preliminary estimate of no growth.

GDP in the third quarter was also revised to show a 0.1% contraction, a smaller fall than initially thought, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said on Friday.

Two consecutive quarters of contraction would have represented a recession.

Despite the improvement, British economic output remained 0.6% below its level of late 2019, the only G7 economy not to have recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

UK economy lags behind rest of G7 in post-pandemic recovery

“The latest release takes the UK a little further away from the recessionary danger zone although the report does not change the overall picture that the economy’s performance was lacklustre over the second half of 2022 as the cost of living crisis hit hard,” Investec economist Philip Shaw said.

The International Monetary Fund forecast in January that Britain would be the only Group of Seven major advanced economy to shrink in 2023, in large part because of an inflation rate that remains above 10%.

Since then, a string of economic data has come in stronger than expected by analysts.

Ruth Gregory at Capital Economics said Friday’s figures showed high inflation had taken a slightly smaller toll than previously thought.

“But with around two-thirds of the drag on real activity from higher rates yet to be felt, we still think the economy will slip into a recession this year,” she said.

House prices slid in March at the fastest annual rate since the financial crisis, mortgage lender Nationwide said.

The Bank of England (BoE) last week raised interest rates for the 11th consecutive meeting and investors are split on the possibility of another increase in May.

Britain’s dominant services sector rose by 0.1%, boosted by a nearly 11% jump for travel agents, echoing other data which has pointed to a surge in demand for holidays.

Manufacturing grew by 0.5%, driven by the often erratic pharmaceutical sector, and construction grew by 1.3%.

Individuals’ savings were boosted by the government’s energy bill support scheme and households’ disposable income increased by 1.3% after four consecutive quarters of negative growth.

The BoE expects Britain’s economy to have contracted by 0.1% in the first three months of 2023 but it forecasts slight growth in the second quarter.

The outlook has improved thanks in large part to falling international energy prices and a strong jobs market.

But the picture could darken again if recent turmoil in the global banking sector leads to lenders reining in loans.

Business investment falls

The data suggested businesses remained cautious. Business investment fell 0.2% in quarterly terms, a sharp downgrade from a first estimate of a 4.8% rise after changes to the way the ONS calculates seasonal adjustments.

Earlier on Friday, a survey painted a more upbeat picture for businesses.

Finance minister Jeremy Hunt this month announced new tax incentives to encourage companies to invest, although they were less generous than a previous scheme and came just as corporate tax is due to jump.

The ONS said Britain posted a shortfall in its current account in the fourth quarter of 2.5 billion pounds ($3.1 billion), or 0.4% of GDP.

Excluding volatile swings in precious metals, the shortfall fell to 3.3% of GDP from 4.2% in the third quarter.

The ONS said increased foreign earnings by companies, particularly in the energy sector, helped narrow the deficit.

Britain’s financial account surplus – which shows how the current account deficit was funded – comprised large net inflows of short-term, “hot” money. Foreign direct investment was negative in net terms for a sixth quarter running.

($1 = 0.8073 pounds)

(Additional reporting by William James, graphic by Vineet Sachdev; Editing by Robert Birsel and Catherine Evans)

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