Worrying signs surround the UK's consumer spending boom

Julian Harris
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Shoppers On Oxford Street On The Last Saturday Before Christmas
Happy shoppers have kept the UK's economy growing healthily (Source: Getty)

Wall Street traders have built up a lexicon's worth of cliches over the years.

One of the most famous goes something like this: "Never bet against the US consumer". The message is simple – even when macroeconomics suggests Americans should tighten their purse strings and impose much-needed household austerity, they instead rush to the nearest shiny shopping mall and buy a load more stuff.

In recent times the saying could equally be applied on this side of the pond. For much of the post-crisis era economists have been fretting about a UK recovery over-reliant on consumer spending. More recently, in the aftermath of last summer's surprise Brexit vote, Britons brushed off the doom-laden warnings of Bank of England officials and simply kept on spending. It is not the only factor behind the economy's impressive post-referendum performance, but it has helped.

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Now, however, there are signs of the shopping surge running out of steam. UK retail sales fell one per cent like-for-like in March, compared to a year earlier. "First impressions of March’s sales figures are underwhelming, with the first decline since August last year," said British Retail Consortium boss Helen Dickinson yesterday.

This long Easter weekend could provide some welcome relief for retailers, but as City A.M. reported on Monday, the outlook is bleak. Spending growth in the first quarter of the year was the weakest since 2013, according to Visa, while insolvency experts have "red flagged" nearly 23,000 retailers facing significant financial stress.

Furthermore, the problem could extend beyond the retail sector. While splashing their cash (and hammering their credit cards) in recent years, Britons have allowed the average household saving ratio to plummet to its lowest level for over half a century.

Auto-enrolment aside, there is little sign of any major pick-up in pension contributions, and with interest rates set to stay low, a jump in the savings ratio seems unlikely. These factors, alongside high levels of unsecured lending, may help to defy recent signals and prop up consumer spending for some time yet. But even if this is the case, such an extended period of low investment and relatively high credit-fuelled spending surely cannot be healthy for the underlying strength of the economy.

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