View from City Road: CBI suggests muted jingle at Christmas

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The Independent Online
After all the conflicting indications of how retail sales were going over Christmas, the CBI distributive trades survey suggests tomorrow's government figures will be disappointing. Unless the relationship between the survey and the official statistics has been broken, it has been a long way from a boom on the high streets.

The 34 per cent balance of retailers reporting sales higher than a year earlier last month is the biggest since April 1990. But Midland Bank's estimate of the relationship between the official and CBI data since the last General Election suggests this will translate into an annual increase in sales volume of 4 per cent, barely higher than the 3.9 per cent recorded in the year to November.

This, in turn, suggests only a small rise at best in sales volumes between November and December, after adjusting for normal seasonal effects. Analysts are looking for an increase of around 0.5 per cent, but this could prove optimistic.

There are other reasons to fear a disappointing figure. In 1991 and 1992, December accounted for less than 11 per cent of retail sales volume for the calendar year, compared with an average of more than 11.2 per cent since 1986. If December 1993 gives rise to a share of the year's sales similar to the previous two years, then seasonal adjustment will over-compensate for the normal rise in trade at Christmas time, depressing the official month-on-month change.

The relationship between the CBI survey and the official statistics is far from perfect, but there seems a good case for being downbeat about it all.

The boom conditions may have been concentrated very close to Christmas, offsetting more subdued trading earlier in the month. It may also be the case that for every store group trumpeting good Christmas trading, there is at least one Dixons with a special reason to explain away a disappointing performance.