UK consumers keep calm and carry on shopping in the run-up to Brexit deadline

Retail sales volumes surged by the most in nearly two-and-a-half years in annual terms, leaping by 6.7 percent, the Office for National Statistics said.That was way above all forecasts in a Reuters poll of economists.

ONS officials said the increase in part reflected the hit to spending a year ago when Britain was in the grip of the so-called “Beast from the East” snowstorms and icy weather.Warm weather in March this year helped increase spending on clothes, the ONS said.In monthly terms, sales jumped by 1.1 percent, defying the median forecast of a fall of 0.3 percent in the Reuters poll.In the first three months of 2019, a smoother reading of spending patterns, sales grew by 1.6 percent compared with the previous three months, the strongest increase since August 2018.Britain was originally due to leave the European Union on March 29 but that deadline was pushed back to April 12 and then again to Oct. 31 as Prime Minister Theresa May failed to break an impasse in parliament on the terms of Brexit.The figures published by the ONS on Thursday covered the period between Feb. 24 and March 30.Consumer spending has supported Britain’s economy through the Brexit crisis, in sharp contrast to businesses which have cut back on investment.Falling inflation, a steady rise in wages and the lowest unemployment since 1975 have boosted household incomes, although after inflation wages are still below their peak before the financial crisis.Despite that, the Bank of England is predicting the slowest overall economic growth for a decade this year.BoE officials say they underestimated the resilience of British households to the immediate shock of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and Thursday’s figures are likely to cause the central bank a further surprise.The BoE has said it plans to raise interest rates gradually once the uncertainty about Brexit clears.Figures from the British Retail Consortium last week suggested shoppers cut back spending at high-street retailers for the first time in almost a year in March.But supermarket chain Tesco said its shoppers were not being put off by Brexit. 

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