UK economic outlook Q2 2023

Published 18 April 2023 8.46am, updated 6 June 2023.

Higher than expected inflation dampens expectations for UK economy.

Inflation data was higher than expected in May, which has weighed on business confidence, and has pushed interest rate expectations, and the cost of borrowing, higher. 

Economic growth

Recession may still be avoided

In its report accompanying March’s Spring Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said the economy would shrink by just -0.2% this year before returning to growth (its previous forecast showed a contraction of -1.4% in 2023). However, a more recent forecast from Moody’s after new inflation data showed a slower than expected decline (examined in detail below) signals the UK may dip into negative territory briefly.

The IMF, traditionally circumspect about the UK’s economic outlook, also published a brighter than expected report on the country’s GDP prospects in May, predicting growth of 0.4% this year, up from its previous forecast of a 0.3% contraction.

Whether the UK falls into technical recession or not, the outlook for 2023 indicates limited growth before the economy starts to regain momentum in 2024.

The UK’s GDP output has returned to levels registered in February 2020, just before the pandemic. The latest data shows that total output was 0.3% above those levels in February 2023. However, the US economy is around 5% bigger than pre-pandemic levels, and Eurozone economies are averaging 2.4% growth over the same period. 

Looking further forward, economists are agreed that growth will resume from 2024, registering 1.8% growth in 2024 and 2.5% in 2025.

Inflation

Inflation is falling, but not as quickly as expected

Inflation peaked at 11.1% in October, but hopes for a smooth decline in inflation were disappointed as it ticked up again in February, taking the annual rise in inflation to 10.4%, up from 10.1% in January. The official measure of inflation dipped again in March to 10.1%, but this is still higher than economists were expecting. This may give more grounds for the Bank of England’s rate-setters to consider a further increase the base rate to 4.5% in May. However, it is still widely expected that inflation will fall back rapidly this year to around 3% in Q4. This would take the full-year rate of inflation to 6.1%.

Falling energy prices will also put downward pressure on pricing, but any more supply-side shocks could unwind this trend. Inflation will also fall due to the annual calculations – rising prices from last year will fall out of the sums, even as prices remain higher.

Inflation peaked at 11.1% in October but hopes for a rapid decline have been disappointed. The official measure of inflation fell in March to 10.1% and in April to 8.7%, but both of these readings were higher than economists were expecting. In addition, April’s headline figures were lower due to lower energy costs, but core inflation continued to rise and the rate of food inflation only ticked down marginally. 

This may give more grounds for the Bank of England’s rate-setters to consider a further increase to the base rate – with some forecasters now predicting that interest rates could reach 5% from the current rate of 4.5% during the course of the year.

Gilt rates, the rates that determine fixed-rate pricing, rose sharply on after the data was released, to around 4.55%, the highest levels last registered since the mini-budget,  and mortgage rates have started to climb as a result.

It is still widely expected that inflation will fall back rapidly this year, but it is now expected to reach just under 5% by the end of the year, rather than previous predictions of around 3%. Even so, falling inflation should allow interest rates to come back down too in 2024.  

Falling energy prices will also put downward pressure on pricing, but any more supply-side shocks could unwind this trend. Inflation will also fall due to the annual calculations – rising prices from last year will fall out of the sums, even as prices remain higher.

Interest rates

Interest rates rise to a new 14-year high of 4.25%

The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted to raise rates again in March, to 4.25%, after a rate rise of 0.5% in early February. The key question remains – how much higher will they rise? The MPC’s note accompanying their rate decision made it clear they were prepared to raise rates again if inflationary pressure remained, but at the same time, highlighted that they expected inflation to fall sharply.

The Bank’s remit is to target 2% inflation in two years’ time, so any indication that they will undershoot this would signal the need for a rate cut. The Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said he was ‘more hopeful’ on the economy than several months ago.

The inflation data will be discussed at length during the next MPC meeting later in June – although May’s data will come out on June 21st during their deliberations. Any faster than expected decline in CPI could create additional discussions around the next move, although it is widely expected that another quarter point rise is on the way at least. Some economists now expect interest rates to peak at 5% or more before falling back.

The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) suggested that UK interest rates (along with rates in other countries) could return to lower levels as that is their ‘natural rate’. However, the analysis was conducted with reference to ‘real’ interest rates – taking into account inflation. So even if inflation settles at around 2%, this would still imply actual base rates of around 2 – 2.5%.

Employment

Unemployment still low but set to rise (a bit)

The rate of unemployment ticked up from 3.8% to 3.9% in the three months to March, according to the latest data from the ONS. The number of payrolled employees fell by 136,000 in April, although the employment rate remained relatively steady at 75.9%. But levels of economic inactivity dipped slightly, to 21% in the three months to March, down from 21.5% in the three months to January, but this level is higher than policymakers would like (and higher than before the pandemic) – hence the moves on pensions in the Spring Budget to entice doctors in particular back into the workforce. Expect more policy moves to encourage this.


The number of job vacancies in the three months to February 2023 remained high at 1.1 million, although this is down from a peak of 1.3 million between March and May 2022. Even with these levels of vacancies, economists are predicting a rise in unemployment, up to around 4.5% by the end of 2023, something which rate-setters will be keeping a close eye on. 

The information provided in this report is the sole property of Cluttons LLP and provides basic information and not legal advice. It must not be copied, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, either in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Cluttons LLP. The information contained in this report has been obtained from sources generally regarded to be reliable. However, no representation is made, or warranty given, in respect of the accuracy of this information. Cluttons LLP does not accept any liability in negligence or otherwise for any loss or damage suffered by any party resulting from reliance on this publication.

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Director of research and insights

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Einar Roberts

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