M&S: What kind of recovery?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on the outlook for UK retailers

Marks and Spencer's shareholders won't know quite what to make of Stuart Rose's last months in charge - and nor, I suspect, will the chancellor of the exchequer or the governor of the Bank of England.

On the one hand, a goodish number of investors will embarrass the company at the forthcoming annual general meeting, by voting against the retailer's remuneration practices: they don't like the signing-on package awarded to the new chief executive, Marc Bolland, worth up to £15.1m, and they've been consistently uncomfortable with the magnitude of variable rewards paid to Rose and payable to others in the future.

On the other hand, M&S's sales performance for the past three months looks remarkably good: group sales rose 4.4%; UK sales were 4.8% higher; British general merchandise increased an impressive 7%, or 6% on an underlying, like-for-like basis.

The performance would look better still, by 0.4 of a percentage point in general merchandise, if adjustments were made for the absence of the moveable trading feast, Easter, from this year's figures.

None of which is redolent of an economy in the UK that is in theory only just getting off its knees after the deepest recession since the 1930s.

And according to the latest forecast produced for the chancellor by the Office for Budget Responsibility, household consumption in Britain is supposed to rise by a meagre 0.2% this year.

So is there evidence that consumers are spending more and saving less than the Treasury and Bank of England have been expecting?

M&S believes it is doing better than other retailers - which is characteristic of this venerable company in periods of economic uncertainty - such that its market share of UK clothing sales rose 0.50 of a percentage point to 10.7%. And it would plainly be wrong to read too much into statistics about three months of trading at a single retailer, even one as sizeable in clothing and general merchandise as M&S.

But making allowances for all of that, it's plain that British shoppers are feeling a bit more gung-ho than might have been expected.

As for M&S, it takes the view that one swallow doesn't make for an extended retailing summer, which is why its share prices has fallen this morning. Its statement says:

"We have made a good start to the financial year, but following the recent Budget and the actions proposed to reduce the national deficit, including the increase in VAT, we are cautious about the outlook for consumer confidence and spending and continue to manage the business accordingly."

Here of course is the delicious paradox. Sir Stuart Rose was one of the business leaders who signed a letter before the general election urging any new government to crack down on government waste.

With the coalition government announcing the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory, Rose is certainly getting his wish - though Rose would never have asked Santa for the VAT rise which is coming in January.

In the round, the outlook for retailers over the coming few years still looks pretty daunting.

The gross indebtedness of UK households remains at record levels - more than 100% of GDP - even as we all save a little bit more on average more than we had been doing.

On the assumption that households continue to endeavour over the coming few years to repair their finances by saving a bit more and spending a bit less, then - according to the Office for Budget Responsibility - household consumption will increase at an annual rate of 1.9% over the five years from 2011 to 2015.

That may not look too bad, but is around a quarter less than the annual average growth rate of 2.5% in household consumption during the boom years from 2003 to 2007.

One way of looking at this is to say that for consumer-facing companies, the lower trends to household spending will cost them around £20bn in lost sales every single year by 2015.

So retailers can probably discard any hope of a return to the golden years of the decade before 2007 and it would be sensible to assume that we haven't seen the last retailing bankruptcy of this phase of the cycle.

Nor is that as bad as it could get. If inflation were to rise in a way that looked endemic rather than short term, such that the Bank of England felt obliged to raise interest rates, then there would be a profound squeeze on consumers' spending power - and retailers would be back in the hell of late 2008.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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