January's growth figure for UK retail sales came in at 0.9%, which is a staggeringly strong showing and well above forecasts of a 0.3% contraction. To put it into perspective, this figure represents the strongest monthly performance since last April's Royal Wedding bonanza. On the back of December's strong retail sales growth, this represents an excellent start to the year.
In terms of what products pushed this growth figure so high - January clothes sales were not responsible, rather it was fuel, sporting and household goods leading the way. The UK must be getting more health-conscious; food sales shrank and sportswear sales grew impressively. The hefty discounts seen on UK high streets are obviously being received well at consumer level but it doesn't reflect well on UK shop-owners, who are quite clearly desperate to stay afloat. A recent report revealed that on average 14 UK shops closed a day in 2011.
Discounts have obviously had an enormous role to play in the retail sector's bumper month in January. However, lower prices will have played their part. Last year was characterised by soaring inflation caused by higher VAT, elevated commodity prices and a weak GBP, which saw UK CPI reach highs of 5.2% last September. However, inflation declined sharply to 3.6% in January, which gives an indication as to why UK shoppers stepped up their spending. UK CPI is expected to continue declining aggressively in the coming months, which will be a huge relief to British consumers.
Thursday's nationwide consumer confidence survey provided an indication as to an improved high street sentiment. The survey jumped to a five month high but still, confidence levels remain at historically very low levels and no one saw this retail sales growth coming.
Nonetheless, the need for caution with regard to the near-term hopes for UK consumers is overwhelming. Household incomes continue to be tightly squeezed and wage growth has been minimal.UK unemployment is soaring and expected to rise further this year.
The UK economy shrank by 0.2% in the last quarter of 2011 and it must rebound into positive territory this quarter if it is to avoid falling into a second technical recession in the space of three years. Fortunately, the Bank of England's additional quantitative easing appears to be working - January's growth figures, led by the UK services and retail sectors, have been remarkably positive and a double-dip recession may just be avoided.
With tensions surrounding the eurozone's growth and debt profile ever-increasing, the near-term outlook for the UK economy has rarely been more uncertain. If the crisis escalates further, the UK economy will be more or less powerless to avoid negative growth.
January's rate of growth can surely not be sustained throughout Q1 but the unexpected upturn we have seen in recent weeks is welcome nonetheless. From a currency perspective, it has benefited the pound as well, GBP/USD is at a three-month high and GBP/EUR has recently tested a 17 month high.