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UK consumer confidence has dropped to its lowest level for nearly 50 years amid the cost of living crisis, according to a survey, fuelling concerns that the economy will slide into recession in 2022.
The UK consumer confidence index fell 2 percentage points to minus 40 in May, its lowest since records began in 1974, said research company GfK in a report published on Friday.
The survey measures how people view the state of their personal finances and wider economic prospects. Joe Staton, client strategy director at GfK, said: “Consumer confidence is now weaker than in the darkest days of the global banking crisis, the impact of Brexit on the economy, or the Covid shutdown.”
The fall in confidence reflected soaring inflation, which reached a 40-year high of 9 per cent in April driven by rising energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Linda Ellett, UK head of consumer markets at KPMG, said that “as prices and rates rise, the ability of consumers to spend is falling”.
Throughout last year, consumer spending supported the UK’s pandemic recovery but record-low consumer confidence has raised the risk of recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of falling output.
Samuel Tombs, economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, noted that when the GfK consumer confidence index had in the past fallen below minus 30, “households’ spending dropped” and “recession ensued”.
The UK’s economic recovery had already stalled in February and March and the Bank of England expects the economy to alternate between near-stagnation and contraction over the next two years with economic output unlikely to change significantly before the first quarter of 2024.
The fall in consumer confidence is the first sign that the UK economy is experiencing a protracted period of economic stagnation coupled with historically high inflation, a combination usually referred to as stagflation.
The UK has not experienced a combination of such diverging trends in prices and activity since the 1970s.
Sandra Horsfield, economist at Investec, said that despite household savings building up over the pandemic, a squeeze on discretionary spending looked “inevitable”. She added this was especially true for poorer households, which have fewer savings and tend to allocate a larger share of income to food and energy.
The GfK data, based on interviews conducted in the first half of May, showed that the proportion of people choosing not to make big purchase decisions rose, as confidence levels fell more than the minus 39 forecast by economists polled by Reuters. Perceptions of personal finances and the wider economy also deteriorated.
Waning consumer confidence was reflected across several sectors. Shopping and recreational outings were down 11 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Google Mobility data.
In the second week of May, credit and debit card spending on discretionary items, such as clothing and furniture, was down 14 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, according to BoE data.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics showed that in the first half of May more than half of the respondents had cut their non-essential spending and energy use as a result of rising living costs.
Early in the week, official data showed that UK unemployment fell to the lowest rate in nearly 50 years and more job vacancies were available than job seekers for the first time on record. The tight labour market adds to the risk of higher and more persistent inflation as rising prices become embedded in wage negotiations and in the wider economy.
As a result, markets are pricing the Bank of England to raise rates to 2 per cent by the end of the year from its current 1 per cent. This would mean higher borrowing costs for businesses and households on top of soaring prices.
“The outlook for consumer confidence is gloomy and nothing on the economic horizon shows a reason for optimism any time soon,” said Staton of GfK.
A consortium of Chinese state banks has lent $2.3bn to Pakistan to help the country stave off a foreign payments crisis, finance minister Miftah Ismail said on Friday.
Confirmation of the support from China, a close economic and military ally of Pakistan, came on the same day Islamabad announced a one-off 10 per cent ‘super tax’ on important industries that is intended to lead to a stalled $6bn IMF loan package being resumed.
“I am pleased to announce that Chinese consortium loan of Rmb15bn ($2.3bn) has been credited in to SBP [State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s central bank] account today, increasing our foreign exchange reserves,” Ismail said in a tweet on Friday evening.
A senior government official said the arrival of the loan was “one of the signals that we’re about to return to the IMF programme”.
China had quietly urged Islamabad to repair ties with the IMF “as an essential step to improve Pakistan’s economic health and avoid a default”, the official said.
The Chinese loan will raise Pakistan’s liquid foreign reserves of $8.2bn to $10.5bn and could help shore up the rupee, which has slumped against western currencies.
Pakistan began to receive IMF payments in 2019 under a 39-month loan programme, but the fund has so far given only about half of the $6bn agreed.
In recent months, sliding confidence in Pakistan’s economy has prompted concerns it could follow Sri Lanka in defaulting on international debt.
Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was elected by parliament in April following the ousting of rival Imran Khan, unveiled on Friday the new super tax to be levied on manufacturers of cement, beverages, steel, tobacco and chemicals.
“The government has decided to impose a 10 per cent ‘poverty alleviation tax’ on large-scale industries of the country,” Sharif tweeted.
Business leaders widely criticised the move and share prices on the Karachi Stock Exchange fell nearly 5 per cent after news of the tax emerged. Analysts said the decision would further fuel inflation, a central concern for households across Pakistan.
Zaffar Moti, a former KSE director, said: “This is a major setback for the economy. The government has decided to further tax those who are already paying their taxes.”
The “worrying” disparity in clean energy investments between the advanced economies and the developing nations was put into the spotlight this week, ahead of the G7 leaders meeting.
G7 economies account for about a quarter of the global energy-related carbon emissions that are behind global warming. The leaders’ meeting comes as all economies grapple to end their reliance on Russia for fossil fuel supplies as prices spike in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
The latest International Energy Agency world energy outlook report released last week said that while global clean energy investment had increased since the Paris climate accord was adopted in 2015, the “weakness” of clean energy investments across the developing world was “one of the most worrying trends”.
“Much more needs to be done to bridge the gap between emerging and developing economies’ one-fifth share of global clean energy investment, and their two-thirds share of the global population,” the IEA said.
The IEA cited scarce public funds, highly indebted state-owned utilities and a worsening global economic outlook as factors that made it more difficult for developing economies to invest in clean energy projects.
The agency advocated for financial and technical support, including concessional capital, private sector capital, and inflows from international carbon markets, as “crucial” for closing the gap.
The IEA also warned global investment levels in the power sector over the past three years had fallen short of the level needed to meet countries’ climate pledges, and would lead to a failure to meet the net zero global emissions target by 2050 that is required to curb climate change.
The IEA estimated global investment into power in 2022 totalled about $975bn, versus an annual requirement of $1.2tn to achieve countries’ stated policies, and $2tn to reach net zero.
It said a rapid acceleration of investment was needed in renewable technologies, alongside reduced dependency on fossil fuels, for the world to reach a 1.5C stabilisation of the rise in average global temperatures. Temperatures have already risen about 1.1C since pre-industrial times.
Power investments in emerging market economies needed to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25 per cent to reach net zero levels, the IEA said — or twice the pace of advanced economies.
Leaders of G7 countries are expected to discuss global energy demands when they meet in Germany on Sunday. Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz gave assurances that climate change remained on the agenda, but the war in Ukraine has raised fears that Europe may backslide on commitments to end fossil fuel funding as coal plants and gas plants are brought into commission to compensate for the Russian supplies.
G7 countries must generate 42 per cent of their electricity by wind and solar by 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5C by 2050, the IEA has calculated.
Pressure is building on Japan, which will assume the G7 presidency next, to take a lead role in commitments to cut coal use. Tokyo agreed at the recent G7’s energy and environment ministers meeting to stop financing fossil fuel projects internationally by the end of 2022 and promised to clean up its power system by 2035. This included supporting “an accelerated global unabated coal phaseout”.
It is the only G7 country to have set a target falling short of the IEA’s recommendation of 42 per cent of energy from renewables, however, by setting itself a goal of 38 per cent.
“In the lead-up to the G7, many will ask if it is possible for Japan to achieve a 100 per cent clean energy system by 2035,” Ember said in a report last week. “While this target will be a challenge, it is achievable. The obvious place to start is scaling up rooftop solar and wind energy, which could help Japan create a far more secure and sustainable energy system by 2035.”
The EU has set an average target of 63 per cent by 2030 for the generation of electricity from renewable sources.
Among the leading bloc countries, Germany is aiming for 80 per cent by 2030, while Italy has a 70 per cent goal, and France just 38 per cent, because of its ample nuclear energy supplies that are regarded as “clean”.
The UK has said it will generate 95 per cent of its electricity from low carbon sources by 2030, and the US has committed to 100 per cent clean power by 2035 but is lagging behind the G7 in current renewable generation.
A US official told reporters in Washington this week that the subject of energy security would be “very much at the heart of discussions” at the G7 gathering.
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.
Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Find out more about our science-based targets here
The writer is editor-in-chief of Money Week
Are we nearly there yet? Global markets are over 20 per cent off their highs. And the past month has been particularly horrible.
Even the longstanding defensive (and supposedly diverse) strategy of having 60 per cent of your assets in equities and 40 per cent in bonds has been something of a disaster — 60/40 is heading for the worst year since 2008 (when a standard 60/40 portfolio fell 20 per cent). The only hiding place has been China.
Sadly, this level of misery does not mean there is not more misery to come. There may be a recession ahead.
Bear markets don’t necessarily cause or come with recessions. The short, but nasty, bear markets of 1962, 1966, 1987 and 2018 did not, for example. However, a recession can make a bear market very significantly worse — or, at the very least, longer.
Look at all the bears since 1902 in the US and you will see that those without a recession have lasted on average a mere 7.6 months. Those with a recession have lasted an average of 23.8 months — and that is with the generous inclusion of the super-short (one-month) bear market and state-enforced recession of 2020.
This makes sense, of course. Bear markets are, in the main, reactions to overvaluation — a reversion to some kind of mean. If there is no recession — and hence no real change to the earnings part of the equation — a fall in prices back to a level at which price/earnings ratios look OK can be quick and simple.
But add in a recession and all simplicity collapses. We can set prices when we have one moving part, but not when we have two. If you have been wondering why all market analysts are now obsessed with the possibility of a recession and how long it might last, this is why.
Figuring out the answer is a matter of establishing first where inflation will go, and second how central bankers will react to where inflation has gone. Most analysts are looking to commodity prices — the supply crunch that has driven this year’s horrible consumer price index numbers — for the answers.
Here there might be glimmers of good news. The oil price has turned down slightly and the copper price (one of the most watched numbers in the market) has just hit a 16-month low (it is down 14 per cent this year so far). Mining stocks are falling too.
This suggests the tantalising possibility that we may be near peak inflation. If that is so, then it might not be that long until central banks can pull back from raising interest rates, today’s scary anti-Goldilocks environment (everything is either too hot or too cold) will evaporate and all will be well again.
If central banks get the balance right — unlikely, I admit — we could end up seeing exactly what everyone wants: a soft landing that comes with either no growth for a few quarters or a very mild recession. Job done.
There is, however, an inflationary wild card here: wages. Listen to the news occasionally and you might conclude that real wages everywhere have been collapsing. But that is not quite right.
As market historian Russell Napier points out, by the end of April 2022, UK wages were 13.9 per cent above their pre-Covid level. Consumer price inflation had risen only 9.2 per cent.
In the past few months, inflation has hit new and nasty highs. But there is good reason to think that wages will catch up soon. The labour market in the UK remains very tight (as is the case in the US, where real wages are also up since the beginning of the pandemic). And while union membership in the UK has halved from its peak in 1979, it is rising again.
A summer of industrial action is already under way in the UK, as anyone hoping for an easy train ride to the first Glastonbury music festival in three years will know. And anyone planning to go on holiday over the summer will be increasingly worried, given that British Airways employees have just voted to strike.
There is, says Napier, “a bull market in the price of labour”. That is not necessarily bad news at all. In fact, you could see it as a welcome development. It makes a long, deep recession less likely.
Note that even in the grim consumer confidence numbers released in the UK this week, purchasing intentions remained unchanged. And, given that central banks, the US Federal Reserve in particular, appear to be more focused on the wellbeing of Main Street than that of Wall Street at the moment, pay may be an inflation driver that worries them less than others.
Where wage growth might hurt, however, is in profit margins. Look at company earnings forecasts and you will see that not much misery has been priced in.
Current estimates suggest that UK companies will report earnings per share 4 per cent above 2019 levels this year and that US and European companies will see EPS up 38 per cent and 24 per cent respectively, notes Simon French of Panmure Gordon.
A summer of strikes and real wage rises could turn that around pretty quickly, recession or no recession. We might be nearly there. It is just that our destination may not be the one we were expecting.
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