The return of summer weather last month helped retail sales recover despite a hit from weaker demand for fuel, according to official figures.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 0.4% rise – a figure that grew to 0.6% when the effects of fuel sales were excluded.
It said stronger clothing sales drove the increase but fuel sales volumes were 1.2% lower – likely the result of a surge in pump costs due to rising global oil prices.
The bounce-back for overall sales followed an upwardly revised 1.1% decline in July compared to the previous month when wet weather was blamed for people shying away from summer fashion purchases in physical stores.
ONS senior statistician Heather Bovill said: “Retail recovered a little from the large fall seen in July, driven by a partial bounce back in food and a strong month for clothing, though sales overall remain subdued.
“These were partially offset by internet sales, which dropped slightly as some people returned to shopping in person following a very wet July. Fuel sales also fell, with increased prices hitting demand.”
Recent RAC data suggested that costs for both unleaded and diesel were up by more than 10p a litre since the beginning of August, reflecting the highest prices for Brent crude oil seen in 10 months.
Production cuts by Saudi Arabia and Russia have been blamed for the hikes, with pump prices likely to have further to go to reflect the current level for Brent.
The ONS data is keenly awaited as household spending accounts for a majority of the UK economy – currently flatlining.
A measure of activity covering manufacturing and services, though excluding retail, indicated a growing risk of recession ahead.
The S&P Global Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) said its readings on activity during September – which are subject to revision when full data becomes available – pointed to a contraction in quarterly output of 0.4%.
It was released as a closely-watched measure of consumer confidence showed improvement.
The GfK index, which measures consumer attitudes, showed a four point improvement for September but remaining well inside negative territory.
Joe Staton, the company’s client strategy director, suggested that its findings were more bullish amid the shifting sands of the cost of living crisis, with the headline figure now back in line with January 2022.
“The view on our personal financial situation for the past year and the next is registering marginal but welcome growth, while expectations for the UK’s wider economy in the coming year show a more robust six-point increase.
“And with less than 100 shopping days to Christmas, the four-point boost to the major purchase measure might offer some hope to retailers, who know all too well that many people face financial pressure in the run-up to this year’s festive season.”
The confidence readings were taken in advance of the Bank of England’s latest interest rate announcement though rate-setters did have access to the PMI data.
Their decision to maintain Bank rate at 5.25% was due to reductions in key inflation indicators but the nine-member monetary policy committee will have also been concerned by the recession risks flagged by firms taking part in the PMI survey.
That said, following 14 consecutive increases to tackle surging inflation, its rate-setting committee will be anxious to see if the move heralds a pick-up in demand, such as in consumer spending.
That scenario would be a concern as wages are currently outstripping the rate of inflation and any spending splurge would be seen as an added pressure.
While the Bank’s pause on rate hikes gives some security to borrowers that things like mortgage costs should not go up further for now, the governor signalled that it would have to act again if the pace of price rises accelerated and was clear that there was no prospect of a rate cut any time soon.
Cost of Christmas dinner set to rise in ‘record-breaking’ festive grocery spree
The cost of a traditional Christmas dinner will rise on last year, according to a closely-watched report that is also forecasting record sales for supermarkets over the festive season.
Kantar Worldpanel, which tracks sales and prices at supermarket chains, said its annual measure for the cost of the typical main meal stood at £31.71 for a family of four.
The value of the list of goods, which comprises a frozen turkey along with vegetables – including potatoes and sprouts – and a Christmas pudding, was 1.3% higher compared to the lead-up to Christmas 2022.
While up, the figure is well below the UK’s rate of inflation which currently stands at 5.6%.
The Christmas dinner item which has shot up the most in price was cranberry sauce, Kantar said, which is more than 26% more expensive than last year.
The sparkling wine element of the meal was almost 6% lower than in 2022, with sprouts and the pudding also cheaper.
The report said that discounting by supermarkets in the run-up to the festive season, aimed at locking in customer loyalty for the big Christmas shop, continued to help push its measure of grocery inflation to ease over the four weeks to 26 November.
It stood at 9.1% compared to 9.7% over the previous month.
The report said that chains could collectively rake in more than £13bn for the first time over Christmas – a consequence of the higher prices we are being asked to bear.
Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar, said: “The scene is set for record-breaking spend through the supermarket tills this Christmas.
“The festive period is always a bumper one for the grocers with consumers buying on average 10% more items than in a typical month.
“Some of the increase, of course, will also be driven by the ongoing price inflation we’ve seen this year.
“While the rate at which grocery prices are rising is still well above the norm, the good news for shoppers is that inflation is continuing to come down.”
The Kantar report was released as industry body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) expressed further concern about sales volumes more widely in the run-up to Christmas, fearing that cost of living pressures are taking their toll on budgets.
After official figures showed sales at COVID lockdown levels during October, the BRC suggested that encouraging signs for spending in early November did not hold up for the month as a whole despite widespread early Black Friday discounting.
Its latest Retail Sales Monitor showed total sales by value were 2.7% up last month, easily lagging the rate of inflation.
Food and drink, health, personal care and beauty products continued to drive growth, while jewellery and watches saw the biggest decline in sales on the high street.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “Black Friday began earlier this year as many retailers tried to give sales a much-needed boost in November.
“While this had the desired effect initially, the momentum failed to hold throughout the month, as many households held back on Christmas spending.
“Retailers are banking on a last-minute flurry of festive frivolity in December and will continue working hard to deliver an affordable Christmas for customers so everyone can enjoy some Christmas cheer.”
It may not be all bad news for stores and the wider economy, though.
Separate data from Barclays showed confidence in spending on non-essential items reached its highest level since April last month.
Its latest report on card spending pointed to strong demand for fashion on the high street.
Thames Water reveals leap in pollution incidents
Thames Water has revealed an 18% rise in pollution incidents during the first half of its financial year.
The country’s largest household supplier reported 257 category one – the most serious – to category 3 pollutions over the six months to the end of September.
It said that action to prevent these incidents was a core part of a three-year action plan to improve customer service that had been approved by its board.
Thames, which is looking to raise bills to help pay for much-needed investment in its ageing infrastructure, said: “Our turnaround plan addresses and mitigates the major drivers of pollutions across our wastewater network and sewage treatment works, including more proactive network cleaning and monitoring, and better prioritised reactive responses.
“Consequently, blockages, which cause over 40% of network pollutions, reduced by 5% in the first half of the year.
“As we look ahead, changes our regulators are making to the definition of pollutions are expected to increase the overall number of pollutions we report, even if there is no change in the impact we have on the environment.
“Notwithstanding this, we are committed to tackle the root causes of pollutions to meet the expectations of our communities and the needs of the environment.”
UK water firms have faced a backlash following a spate of sewage discharges.
In the case of Thames, it was fined more than £3m in the summer over an incident that saw human waste flow into rivers for more than six hours un-noticed.
Performance at Thames has been under particular scrutiny.
In June, Sky News revealed how fears that Thames could be swept away under the weight of its £14bn debt pile had prompted the government to ready a rescue plan.
Its investors later agreed a further £750m of investment.
Earlier this autumn, regulator Ofwat fined the company £51m for failure to reach its performance targets.
That money will be paid back through reductions to customer bills.
Thames is pushing for the watchdog to allow an increase in bills from 2025 to help fund its investment plans, with the focus on six key areas including tackling leaks, customer complaints, supply interruptions and pollution.
Interim co-chief executives Cathryn Ross and Alastair Cochran warned the turnaround would take time.
“Whilst business resilience remains fragile with frequent failures in our ageing infrastructure, we have taken a risk-based approach to improve reliability by more closely managing core assets and we have started to bring greater rigour to maintenance practices.
“We have also developed long-term asset plans to build resilience and redundancy that will ultimately restore operations to a level our customers expect.”
Thames revealed an 11% rise in revenues to £1.2bn over the six month period.
While underlying profits rose 22% to £627m, its bottom line profit before tax came in more than 50% lower at £246.4m.
Traders were told of Hamas attack on Israel in advance and ‘profited from tragic events’, researchers claim
Israeli authorities are investigating claims some investors may have known in advance about the Hamas plan to attack Israel on 7 October and used that information to make hundreds of millions of pounds.
Research by US law professors Robert Jackson Jr and Joshua Mitts, from New York University and Columbia University respectively, found significant short-selling of shares leading up to the massacre, which triggered a war that has raged for nearly two months.
“Days before the attack, traders appeared to anticipate the events to come,” the authors wrote, citing short interest in the MSCI Israel Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) they say “suddenly, and significantly, spiked” on 2 October.
“And just before the attack, short selling of Israeli securities on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) increased dramatically,” they added.
The Israel Securities Authority told Reuters: “The matter is known to the authority and is under investigation by all the relevant parties.”
The researchers said short-selling prior to 7 October “exceeded the short-selling that occurred during numerous other periods of crisis”, including the recession following the financial crisis of 2008, the 2014 Israel-Gaza war and the COVID-19 pandemic.
They gave the example of Leumi, Israel’s largest bank, which saw 4.43 million new shares sold short over the 14 September to 5 October period, yielding profits of 3.2bn shekels (£680m) on that additional short-selling.
“Although we see no aggregate increase in shorting of Israeli companies on US exchanges, we do identify a sharp and
unusual increase, just before the attacks, in trading in risky short-dated options on these companies expiring just after the attacks,” they said.
What is shorting?
Short sellers are investors who bet on a fall in the price of a security, in this case a stock.
They typically do this by borrowing shares in a particular company and then selling them.
If the share price falls, they will then buy those shares back at the lower price, sealing in their profit.
The shares are then returned to the original investor from whom they were borrowed.
Traders ‘profited from these tragic events’
The value of the MSCI Israel ETF fell by 6.1% on 11 October, the first day the American market was open for business after the attack, and later dropped by 17.5% over the 20 days following the massacre.
The researchers – who did not name the traders – identified two large transactions on 2 October, adding: “On these two transactions alone, the trader made several million dollars in profit (or in losses avoided).”
They also identified similar patterns in April, when it was reported Hamas was initially planning its attack on Israel.
While the researchers do not identify Hamas as being behind the trades, their paper suggests the information originated from the terror group: “Our findings suggest that traders informed about the coming attacks profited from these tragic events.”
Their paper, Trading on Terror?, was published on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) on Sunday.
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