EMU rumours boost pound as rate rise grows nearer

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The Independent Online
With industry showing steady but unspectacular growth, according to the latest figures, speculation about Britain's entry into the single currency provided the financial markets with their only flurry of excitement yesterday. As Diane Coyle and Michael Harrison report, the Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates again - but not this week. Manufacturing output edged lower in August but was higher than first estimates suggested in July, official figures showed yesterday. They indicated that the economy had probably expanded fast enough in the third quarter to require another dose of higher borrowing costs, economists said. But they were not enough to force the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee to act after its meeting this week.

The City therefore focussed on the latest single currency rumours rather than the firm figures yesterday. A report that a majority of Britains are against the single currency - based on a survey carried out before the election - took the pound's index against a range of currencies up by 0.1 to 100.2 yesterday. It was a small and partial reversal of its earlier fall on the previous rumour that the Government is to announce a more constructive policy.

Output in manufacturing fell 0.1 per cent in August due mainly to a drop in textiles, clothing and leather production. But in the latest three months manufacturing expanded by a healthy 0.6 per cent. It has grown 1.9 per cent since the same period a year ago. There was little sign of the strong pound hitting exports. The export-oriented engineering industries grew by 1.6 per cent in the three months to August and 4.2 per cent over the year.

Total industrial production, of which manufacturing forms the biggest component, fell 0.4 per cent during the month. The main reason was a drop in gas extraction and supply, with above-average temperatures in August. But again, the latest three months showed a more buoyant picture, with output up 2 per cent. The breakdown of the figures suggested a continuing consumer windfall effect. Production of consumer durables was up 0.7 per cent in June-August, with car output particularly strong.

Separate figures yesterday showed that car sales continued their surge last month, rising by 16 per cent to their highest ever September level. But industry executives said the record figure was partly due to manufacturers catching up with the backlog of orders from August.

A total of 169,739 cars were registered in September with imports again taking the lion's share, accounting for 67.3 per cent of all cars sold. Sales of R-registered cars in August reached a high of 525,539 - 10 per cent up the August 1996 figure. Some manufacturers said this was because dealers were bringing forward sales by pre-registering cars as sold. But the strong sales figures for September suggest that consumer demand, fuelled by building society windfalls, is driving demand. Sales for the year look to be heading for around 2.2 million.