Inflation, Brexit and slowing economic growth: it’s a busy week for Britain

Theresa May © Getty
Brace yourself for another Brexit vote

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Markets are still wobbling between whether to be more worried about a slowdown in global growth – or jubilant because it means central banks won’t raise interest rates any time soon.

I’m not sure the deadlock will be broken this week – the US and China have resumed trade talks, but the odds of any sort of breakthrough seem slim.

As for Brexit, well – don’t ask.

Back to Brexit for Britain

It’s a busy week for UK economic data. We’ve just had the first estimate for UK GDP in the fourth quarter of last year, and it was worse than forecasts had expected (though I suspect not worse than markets had thought). Growth slowed to 0.2% (from 0.6% in summer) and in fact, the economy shrunk during December.

Bear in mind that this data is revised and revised and revised to within an inch of its life, and long after it has ceased to be relevant. So, if I’m honest, I tend not to pay much attention to GDP data and I don’t really think you should fret about it too much either. It’s very good headline fodder though, so expect it to get a noisy airing in tomorrow’s papers.

On Wednesday, we get the latest inflation data, for the month of January. The data for December showed inflation slowing to close to the Bank of England’s target level (with the consumer price index rising at an annual rate of 2.1%).

Of course, inflation figures are flawed in all sorts of ways, which we’ve discussed on many occasions in MoneyWeek and will again, but for now, the official data suggests that inflation is easing off.

Yet wages are so far climbing steadily, and if inflation remains around these levels for now, that’s a very healthy sign. When “real” (after inflation) wages are rising, it’s hard to be gloomy on the economy’s prospects. When people have spare cash, they usually spend it. And when they spend it, demand goes up and companies try to raise prices. So I’m not convinced that inflation is going to remain well-behaved.

In the short term, that might depend on how Brexit goes. For now, the market thinks a “soft” Brexit is good for the pound, while a “no deal” one is bad for the pound. If the pound weakens, that’s inflationary (it drives up import prices). If it strengthens, that’s disinflationary. Where it gets tricky, is that a “no deal” Brexit would probably also involve a panicky cut in interest rates – which is also inflationary.

In other words, significant interest-rate rises might be a while off either way. If we get a deal, the pound will strengthen and help to cap inflation. If we don’t get a deal, inflation might go up, but the Bank won’t want to raise rates.

We do, of course, have another debate on Brexit. On Wednesday, Theresa May updates Parliament on her progress. So far, that looks like it’ll be a pretty short speech. So no “meaningful vote” as yet.

Instead, MPs will get to debate Brexit again on 14 February (cue the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” headlines – you’d think they’d have spotted that one a mile off). They can propose more amendments again – so look out again for the amendment to enable MPs to request a delay on Article 50 if a deal has not been reached in time.

It’s all unlikely to move us much further on than where we are now, though as always with Brexit, you never know. There aren’t many investment implications as yet – I suggest you avoid spread-betting the pound this week (too unpredictable), but then you probably weren’t going to.

Don’t hold your breath for a trade deal

As for the rest of the world, US politicians are having further discussions on the government shutdown. They now need to agree a deal by Friday to avert another partial shutdown.

But probably more important for the tone in markets this week are the trade discussions between the US and China. If they don’t reach a deal by 1 March, the US is set to increase existing tariffs on Chinese goods.

It strikes me that there probably won’t be a huge amount of progress. So far, brinksmanship seems to be the name of the game, and we’re nowhere near close enough to 1 March to get a deal wrapped up.

All I will say is that one of the Americans heading out to China is the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who tends to be very aware of the market reaction to things. So I reckon there’s a good chance that he’ll try to keep the communications upbeat and, in doing so, maybe give the market another excuse to go up.

But don’t be surprised if Donald Trump then tweets something to puncture his bubble (which has happened before with Mnuchin).

A view on global growth, and an update from the baddest bank in Britain

On the corporate front, meanwhile, among other things, we’ll get another sense of how badly global growth is slowing (or not), when Deere, the farm machinery giant, reports earnings. Aerospace giants Bombardier and Airbus are also due to report. Markets are already prepared for caution – the main focus (and probably the thing that will most affect the share prices) will be the outlook.

In the UK, meanwhile, RBS delivers its full-year results on Friday. One day, it might no longer be a government-owned bank – we’ll see how much closer it is to that goal by the end of the week.