March 21, 2019 / 10:23 AM / 7 months ago

Warm February helps UK retail sales keep up strength in 2019

LONDON (Reuters) - British retail sales unexpectedly kept up a robust pace of expansion last month, after unusually warm weather boosted sales, reinforcing the sector’s role as a bright spot for the economy ahead of Brexit.

Shoppers during the Boxing Day sales on Oxford Street in central London, Britain December 26 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

Annual retail sales growth slowed only a fraction to 4.0 percent in February after sales volumes grew at their fastest in more than two years in January, the Office for National Statistics said on Thursday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a slowdown in sales growth to 3.3 percent.

Consumer spending has been a source of strength for the British economy at a time when businesses say that Brexit uncertainty is forcing them to postpone investment and a slower global economy is hurting export demand.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Theresa May asked for a three-month delay to Brexit on Wednesday to buy time to get her twice-rejected departure deal though parliament, but the request faced immediate resistance from the European Commission.

Sales volumes in February alone rose by 0.4 percent versus a poll forecast of a decline, after jumping by 0.9 percent in January, while annual sales growth for the three months to February was its strongest in over two years at 3.7 percent.

Falling inflation, a steady rise in wages and the lowest unemployment since 1975 have all boosted household incomes over the past year, though after inflation wages are still below their peak before the financial crisis.

Last year overall British economic growth slowed to its weakest since 2012 and the Bank of England - which is predicted to keep rates on hold later on Thursday - forecasts the weakest growth for a decade this year.

The ONS said that unusually warm weather in February had boosted spending at garden centres and on sporting equipment, sales fell at supermarkets and in clothing stores due to an end of January’s seasonal promotions.

Earlier on Thursday, major British clothing chain Next reported a small fall in annual profit on Thursday, hurt by lower store sales, and forecast another decline for 2019-2020.

Figures from the British Retail Consortium at the start of the month had suggested that annual sales growth at bigger high-street stores slowed in February, with the trade association blaming Brexit.

Separate figures from the ONS on Thursday showed the government broadly on track to meet updated borrowing goals for the 2018/19 financial year, as the strong labour market boosted income tax revenue.

Public borrowing for February, the eleventh month of the tax year, fell to 0.2 billion pounds from 1.2 billion pounds a year earlier, below economists’ average forecast of 0.6 billion pounds in a Reuters poll.

With just one month remaining of the current financial year, government borrowing totals 23.1 billion pounds, down 44 percent from the same point in the 2017/18 tax year, though these figures are likely to be revised further.

Last week Britain’s official budget forecasters cut their 2018/19 borrowing forecast to 22.8 billion pounds or 1.1 percent of GDP from 25.5 billion pounds.

Finance minister Philip Hammond said at the time that if Brexit went smoothly there would be more money for public services in a major multi-year spending review due late this year.

Reporting by David Milliken and Andy Bruce

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