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Output growth slows down

ECONOMICS: Diane Coyle reports on the latest developments on both sides of the Atlantic
Industrial production jumped in March, thanks to big increases in energy output and oil extraction. But official figures published yesterday showed output growth was slowing as the Chancellor argued in defence of his surprise decision not to raise base rates last week.

The pound brought him more relief, climbing more than 3 pfennigs to nearly DM2.27, its highest in two months.

Analysts said sterling's move and the production figures were not enough to vindicate Mr Clarke, however.

Total industrial output leapt 0.9 per cent in March, taking it 5 per cent higher than a year earlier. In the first three months of the year, it rose by a mere 0.1 per cent.

Electricity, gas and water output rose 5.4 per cent in the month. This unusual jump was a bounce back from a depressed February, which was as grey as ever but unseasonably warm this year. In addition, oil and gas extraction reached another new record, continuing strong growth.

Manufacturing output rose 0.3 per cent in March to a level 3.8 per cent higher than a year earlier. It fell 0.1 per cent in the first quarter. Production was either flat or down in all except two sectors.

In coke, refining, petrol and nuclear fuels, it was up 10.2 per cent, accounting for most of the month's increase in the manufacturing total. Chemicals output was up 0.2 per cent.

The Treasury said the figures were consistent with growth in the economy slowing to a more sustainable rate. For some City analysts, on the other hand, this was too strong a conclusion due to a puzzle in the economic data.

The official figures for manufacturing output are far weaker than both recent business surveys and the statistics showing big gains in manufacturing employment would suggest.

In its recent quarterly Inflation Report, the Bank of England said its own regional agents had observed rises in manufacturing output in the first quarter.

''We can't really conclude that the economy is slowing enough,'' said Marian Bell, an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland. She suggested output growth could be slowing simply because companies were operating near full capacity, which would become very ominous news for inflation.

Michael Saunders at investment bank Salomon Brothers said: ''All the other figures we have seen are certainly more buoyant than these. They aren't enough to get the Chancellor off the hook.''

Attention will focus next on a stream of economic statistics out next week - factory gate prices on Monday, unemployment and average earnings on Wednesday and retail sales on Thursday.

Ciarn Barr, UK economist at Morgan Grenfell, said: ''Next week could be decisive for whether we get a base rate rise in June.''