By Donna Kehoe, the Bank of England’s agent for the South West of England
What should we make of the prospects for the UK economy just over a month into what promises to be another eventful year?
On the face of it there’s much to be positive about.
Growth has proved surprisingly resilient since last year’s EU referendum and the Bank of England’s latest forecast points to a stronger outlook for 2017 than we had predicted last November.
That more positive picture is the product of several factors, including a boost from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and a brighter outlook for the global economy.
It’s also been helped by the low cost of borrowing for households and businesses, plus the benefits to trade from the big drop in sterling we saw in the second half of 2016.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that, when I visit businesses around the South West to talk to them about how they’re doing at the moment, many are quite positive.
For example, construction companies report healthy activity particularly in areas such as housebuilding, student accommodation and the care sector. Plus, of course, construction work at Hinkley Point C continues apace.
In the services sector locally many companies have shrugged off the initial post-referendum gloom and are reporting buoyant levels of activity. Plus, many in the region have said that 2016 was a good year for tourism, with early signs for 2017 looking positive too.
There’s even a chink of light for the region’s oil & gas sector companies, which has been encouraged by the recent rise in the oil price.
These are just a few of the stories that we’ve been feeding directly into our colleagues at Threadneedle Street recently. You can read a summary of our latest findings on our website here.
Overall, however, it is a mixed picture. For example, there’s some uncertainty about the post-Brexit landscape, particularly for those companies that rely heavily on international trade, and some investment plans have been affected, which could drag on growth over the coming years.
It is clear that the UK’s new relationship with the EU – and the reforms that it brings about – will determine the country’s long-term prosperity.
In the nearer term, the Brexit vote will have a big impact on how much we pay for goods and services as last year’s drop in the value of sterling pushes up import prices.
We’ve already seen prices rise, and they will continue to do so – the Bank expects Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation to peak at 2.8% in early 2018.
This will inevitably eat into people’s incomes, squeezing households’ spending power.
So the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee faces a difficult balancing act – how to keep inflation under control without risking higher unemployment.
Announcing its latest decision – to keep interest rates at their historic low level of 0.25% – the committee judged it was appropriate to allow inflation to remain high for a period to support growth and jobs.
But it also noted that above-target inflation can only be tolerated for so long.
So, it will watch the economy closely – particularly patterns in wage growth and household spending – over the coming months.
For example, if spending slows more abruptly than expected as prices rise and wages fail to keep pace, more supportive measures might be needed such as a further cut in interest rates.
But if pay growth picks up more rapidly – which might lead to further inflationary pressures in the economy – then it may be necessary to move policy in the other direction.
Last August, the Bank announced a series of policy measures to support the economy during a period of heightened uncertainty, including a cut in interest rates.
It appears that stimulus has played a part in keeping the economy ticking in recent months and some of that uncertainty has been mitigated.
This is unquestionably good news. But the Brexit journey is only just beginning, and there’ll no doubt be more twists along the way.
Assisted by the eyes and ears of the Bank’s agents in the South West and around the UK, the Bank’s policymakers will react as required to help steer the economy through as smooth a course as possible.