In an era of strong growth around the globe, the UK economic data should be less equivocal than it currently is

The mince pies have barely been digested and we have had the first construction data release of 2018 from the Office for National Statistics, for the three months to November 2017. Such is the interest in economic performance, the manufacturing and construction output figures were top billing on the BBC News on the day they came out.

Maybe it was a slow news day or maybe people are looking for reasons to be cheerful as they contemplate the year ahead. What economic data gives with one hand it often takes away with the other, as was the case on this occasion. “Manufacturing output is at its highest in 10 years!” cried the optimists, while the pessimists were satisfied with: “Construction output fell by the most since 2012.” As ever, the pro-Brexiteers celebrate the former while the Remainers bemoan the latter. And in true economist style, I suggest they both have a point.

While the manufacturing figures are great news for exporters, I think the construction figures say more about the current state of the UK economy. And the conclusion is that UK economic activity overall, as in the construction industry, is subdued.

In the three months to November construction output declined by 2% on the previous three months. Within this figure there were some notable falls: in particular the commercial sector fell by 5.4%, and infrastructure by 3.3%. New private housing was the only sector to increase, with a jump of 1.2%, which dispels the notion of a construction industry that is in an inexorable decline. In fact, the private housing sector is proving robust enough to make the overall figures respectable. 

However, taken together the figures present an industry that is broadly flat. I would argue it is the same in the UK economy as a whole. For example, consumer spending on clothes and online goods continued apace over Christmas, according to figures from Barclaycard, but consumer appetite for big ticket purchases such as cars is falling at an alarming rate. Again, the outcome is little change to the overall picture. Some will be happy with that. But in an era of strong growth around the globe, I would expect the UK economic data to be less equivocal than it currently is. 

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