Sterling was under pressure after Friday’s British retail sales figures showed that sales fell in March, despite an increase in consumer goods, particularly alcohol.

This was the biggest fall since 1996 when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) began recording the figures. As Rhian Murphy, ONS head of retail sales said, “Retail sales saw their biggest monthly fall since records began over 30 years ago with large declines in clothing and fuel, only partially offset by strong food sales. The “retail armageddon” as was described by Ayush Ansal, chief investment officer at hedge fund Crimson Black Capital, was a reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pound has been sensitive to gloomy economic figures but also coronavirus updates, as the foreign exchange market is watching to see how the country deals with the lockdown and how fast it recovers.

UK retail sales: Economists predict further fall in April

Thomas Pugh of Capital Economics noted that the record fall in UK retail sales last month demonstrates that consumption has fallen during the lockdown:

“At one end, there were clear signs the pandemic was keeping consumers away from the high street, non-food sales excluding petrol and online sales were down by 19.4% m/m, with an especially sharp 34.8% m/m fall in clothing sales. And petrol sales declined by 18.9% m/m. Department store sales did rise by 2.8% m/m, but appears to be due to purchases of food and other items online. On the other hand, food & drink sales were up 10.4% m/m (within that alcohol 31.4%!) and online sales (non-department store) rose by 5.9% m/m, as consumers were locked down at home.”

But the fall in March is only the beginning, as economists believe that April will post a bigger fall. Alan Custis, head of UK equities at Lazard Asset Management, says that “the real story will be seen in April’s figures when the lock-down will be fully felt by retailers. Here we expect to see dire numbers, but it must be balanced up by very strong online sales, which we expect will be showing growth in excess of 50% year on year. There have been clear winners and losers and we think this will only become more apparent the longer the crisis continues.”

Consumer confidence at its lowest

Further disappointing stats did nothing to support the pound. On Friday, data from the research company GfK showed that British consumer confidence was at its lowest in April.

The balance of consumers who were considering making major purchases dropped to minus 52 in April, while, the net balance of those expecting their financial situation to improve dropped to minus 14. Howard Archer, chief economic adviser at the consultancy EY Item Club said: “The near-term fundamentals for consumer spending have clearly taken a very substantial downturn as a result of coronavirus. Many people have already lost their jobs, despite the supportive government measures while others will be worried that they may still end up losing their job once the furlough scheme ends.”

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