British economy rockets further as BoE eyes housing market

LONDON Thu May 1, 2014 5:53pm BST

Pedestrian walk past houses in London October 7, 2013.  REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Pedestrian walk past houses in London October 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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LONDON (Reuters) - British manufacturing surged last month and house prices rose at the fastest pace since the financial crisis began, underscoring the challenge for the Bank of England in managing a surprisingly rapid economic recovery.

A slowing of mortgage approvals data suggested some moderation in the housing market in March.

But sterling hit a nearly five-year high against the dollar after lender Nationwide said house prices were 10.9 percent higher in April than a year before and a survey of manufacturers showed growth in the sector at its strongest in eight months.

The data will be a further boon for Britain's government ahead of a general election next year, but rising house prices will raise questions about the BoE's ability to prevent a property bubble - a day after its chief economist said it "should be nervous" about the housing market.

Analysts were mostly impressed by Thursday's data, despite BoE figures showing a sharp fall in lending to non-financial and small businesses in March.

"There is absolutely no sign that UK growth is slowing down as the Bank of England had banked on in its last quarterly forecast in February. To the contrary, it is probably accelerating," said Rob Wood, chief UK economist at Berenberg.

Data earlier this week showed the economy racked up its fastest growth in more than six years in the first quarter, with output growing 3.1 percent from the same period last year.

Wood said the BoE looked on course to hike interest rates from a record low in early 2015 and saw a 35 percent chance it will do so late this year. The bank has kept its main interest rate at 0.50 percent for more than five years after slashing borrowing costs at the height of the crisis.

BoE Governor Mark Carney said this week he saw early signs the recovery is broadening out after being driven mainly by consumers, and April's upturn in British factories will not discount that view.

The Markit/CIPS UK Manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) rose in April to 57.3, its highest reading since November and beating all forecasts from economists polled by Reuters. That compared with a March reading of 55.8 that was itself revised up from 55.3.

Readings above 50 denote growth.

"The strength of manufacturing shows that the UK recovery is not simply a housing-driven credit bubble that will inevitably bust," said Wood, pointing to the weaker BoE lending data.

LIMP LENDING?

The BoE said mortgage approvals for house purchases fell for a second month to their lowest level since September last year, possibly reflecting the introduction of tougher new lending rules. January mortgage approvals were the highest since 2007.

"That may suggest some reduction in the pace of the upswing in the housing market in coming months, which would assuage anxiety that the recovery is too lopsided," said David Tinsley, UK economist at BNP Paribas.

But house price gains are likely to continue occupying the attention of the BoE, which has said it would target mortgage lending directly before raising interest rates for the whole economy if house price rises threaten to get out of control.

Outgoing BoE chief economist Spencer Dale said on Wednesday policymakers "should be nervous" about the pace of recovery even if the market is not showing signs of being in a price bubble.

Nationwide, Britain's biggest customer-owned lender, said the price of an average British house rose 1.2 percent last month alone, to 183,577 pounds, and reported the biggest annual increase since June 2007.

Speaking at a Reuters summit this week, Nationwide's chief executive Graham Beale said it was starting to look like there is "quite a lot of heat in the marketplace", although he added it was important to isolate London and the south-east.

House prices in London were around 20 percent higher than their pre-crisis levels as of the first quarter, but still around 2 percent lower for Britain as a whole, Nationwide said.

(Editing by Catherine Evans)

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