High-street sales show signs of economy cooling down

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The strong pound has tightened its squeeze on manufacturing industry, while the retail spending boom might just be tailing off. The latest evidence suggests that the economy is finally starting to cool down. Diane Coyle, Economics Editor, finds few analysts expecting more than one further rise in interest rates.

"Retailers face a white knuckle ride because we will not know until the last minute what Christmas sales will be like," said Andrew Higginson, chairman of the British Retail Consortium's (BRC) economic affairs committee.

The BRC's latest monthly survey, like a similar one from the Confederation of British Industry last week, reported a slowdown in the growth of high street sales last month. Festive spending has got off to a slow start because Christmas Day falls on a Thursday, leaving more last minute shopping opportunities.

Mr Higginson said anecdotal evidence from the first week of December pointed to a pick-up. But he said: "The broader picture is that sales are definitely slowing down."

The survey showed the value of sales up 4.4 per cent in the year to November, only half the previous month's figure, and the weakest since April 1996. Spending is climbing at a slower pace than earlier in the year, no longer fuelled by the windfall of free building society shares.

While neither the BRC nor the CBI survey provides an accurate month-by- month guide to the official figures for retail sales volumes, they join other straws in the wind indicating that higher interest rates are cooling the feverish pace of spending growth.

At the same time, official statistics revealed a surprise fall in manufacturing output last month. "One month's decline does not make a recession, but it does point to a very patchy outlook," said Ciarn Barr, an economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.

With new figures confirming the subdued state of industry, and surveys hinting at a slowdown in the high street, many analysts were predicting the Bank of England would be satisfied with one more rise in the cost of borrowing in the new year.

David Hillier at Barclays Capital said: "The new year pay round will still be very important for the Bank's calculations, but the slowdown in growth could be very sharp."

Other experts reckon the slowdown will be less dramatic, but even so, few think interest rates will climb much further.

Manufacturing production fell 0.2 per cent in November, taking the annual growth rate to 1.3 per cent. Total industrial output, which also includes mining and electricity, gas and water supply, also fell 0.2 per cent during November. But its annual growth edged up a fraction to 1.9 per cent.

Engineering, a heavily export-oriented sector, remained the strongest performer. But its output was flat during the month, and the annual growth rate slowed. Other industries exposed to the strong pound, such as textiles and chemicals, were also weaker.

Separate figures for prices manufacturers paid for materials and charged at the factory gate confirmed there was no sign of inflationary pressure in industry thanks to the squeeze from the strong pound. Input prices fell 1.9 per cent in November, driven by sharp falls in oil and food prices, to a level 8.3 per cent lower than a year earlier.

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