The UK economy has shrunk sharply in the first quarter of 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Sterling fell initially, but then stabilised after the British government extended its furlough scheme until the end of October.

GDP

GDP fell 2.0% fall in the three months to March after there was no growth in the three months to February. Particularly, March was a terrible month for the economy, as the GDP dropped by 5.8%, marking the worst performance since the ONS started calculating monthly data back in 1997.

While the UK economy before the Covid-19 lockdown was not faring well, contracting by 0.2% in February, as the coronavirus pandemic started, in March, however, it suffered dramatically. The drop in the first three months is considered to be the biggest quarterly drop in activity since 2008 after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the global financial crisis.

Yesterday, chancellor Rishi Sunak warned that the UK recession was “already happening”, and that things will not improve in the near future. Last week, the Bank of England forecast that the UK economy might contract by 25% in the April-June quarter, which could be the deepest recession in three centuries.

Decline in Services, Manufacturing and Construction

The ONS reported that in March, with the beginning of the lockdown, the GDP contracted by 5.8% with the services sector shrinking by 6.2% during March, manufacturing output dropping by 4.6% during the month and construction contracting by 5.9%.

The Office for National Statistics explains that there is a close connection between the lockdown measures and the drop in economic activity:

In response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, public health restrictions and social distancing measures have been put in place in the UK, leading to a widespread disruption to economic activity. These measures have impacted upon the spending behaviours of consumers as well as how businesses and their employees operate. It has also affected the provision of services provided by government, including health and education.

Services output decreased by 1.9% in Quarter 1 (January to March) 2020, the largest quarterly fall since records began. Production output fell by 2.1% in Quarter 1 2020, driven by declines in manufacturing. Construction output decreased by 2.6% in the first quarter.

According to Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician for economic statistics, in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit the economy hard, with certain industries such as services and construction declining sharply and others, such as IT support and pharmaceuticals seeing growth.

Key points from the release:

The release reflects the dire effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic disruption to various sectors. March was the worst month as education fell by 4.0% due to school closures, wholesale and retail trade and repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles by 10.7%, food and beverage service activities by 7.3% and accommodation by 14.6%. The travelling sector was also hit falling by 23.6% while transport equipment-making declined by 20.5%.

What economists say:

Talking on Sky News, Sunak said that the government was positive and could “emerge stronger” on the other side. He said: “In common with pretty much every other economy around the world we’re facing severe impact from the coronavirus. You’re seeing that in the numbers. That’s why we’ve taken the unprecedented action that we have to support people’s jobs, their incomes and livelihoods at this time, and support businesses, so we can get through this period of severe disruption and emerge stronger on the other side.”

However, Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, fears that Britain will not “emerge stronger” from the lockdown as he believes that UK firms will remain under pressure:

While countless companies have made adjustments with admirable speed, many will find it difficult to operate at anything like normal capacity under social distancing rules. The furlough scheme has undoubtedly staved off redundancies, and the new flexibility provides businesses a better chance of rebooting.

The Treasury will need to continue innovating to kickstart any recovery. The Government’s loan scheme provided ready cash, but now leaves many firms saddled with debt. Unless this is managed well, it will drag on business investment for long after the lockdown ends.

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