LONDON: Britain's economy suffered its weakest growth since 2012 in early 2018, with heavy snow only partly to blame, prompting investors to slash their bets on a Bank of England rate rise next month.
Britain's economy grew by just 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2018, well below the BoE's prediction of 0.3 percent and at the bottom end of economists' forecasts in a Reuters poll, official data showed on Friday.
Sterling tumbled by more than a cent against the U.S. dollar <GBP=D3>, and interest rate futures more than halved the chance of a May rate rise to less than 20 percent <BOEWATCH>.
"A very weak Q1 GDP print has ended the chances of a rate hike in May. For us, it means no hike at all in 2018," John Wraith, a market strategist at UBS, said.
In year-on-year terms, growth slowed to 1.2 percent from 1.4 percent, its weakest since the second quarter of 2012 and a rate likely to keep Britain lagging behind its international peers.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said the numbers were "clearly disappointing", but played down suggestions that uncertainty over Brexit was to blame.
The slowdown from already modest quarterly growth of 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 was driven by a sharp fall in construction output.
Unusually heavy snow storms in late February and early March, dubbed "the Beast from the East", were known to have hurt some businesses before Friday's data. But the Office for National Statistics said the problems went beyond that.
"While the snow had some impact, particularly in construction and some areas of retail, its overall effect was limited with the bad weather actually boosting energy supply and online sales," ONS statistician Rob Kent-Smith said.
Consumer-facing businesses also slowed in the first quarter, the ONS said, probably reflecting higher inflation.
The pound's fall after the June 2016 Brexit vote eroded households' disposable income throughout last year.
The scale of the slowdown may unsettle the BoE's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), which next week begins considering whether to raise rates on May 10 for only the second time since the 2008 financial crisis.
However, some BoE policymakers have said early estimates of first-quarter GDP are often revised up - on average, by 0.3 percentage points - particularly at times of harsh weather.
"If the MPC wants to look through this number and hike they can justify it - they just have a challenge selling it to the man and woman on the street," Scotiabank economist Alan Clarke said.
A key factor will be whether April purchasing managers' surveys next week rebound from weak March readings. If they are similar to data this week from the Confederation of British Industry, the recovery may be limited.
RATE HIKE ODDS LENGTHENING
Until recently, most economists were predicting that the BoE would not be swayed by weak first-quarter data because inflation is running above its target and the unemployment rate is the lowest since 1975.
Two of the BoE's nine policymakers voted to raise rates to 0.75 percent in March, saying the economy was running at close to full capacity - a view largely shared by their colleagues.
But many economists had begun to think the BoE might be getting cold feet about a May rate rise after Governor Mark Carney alluded to "mixed" data last week and the possibility of moving rates at a later meeting.
Markets now price in just one rate rise for 2018, probably by August and almost certainly by November.
UBS's Wraith said he thought the economy would slow further, and that the BoE would be unable to raise rates later this year.
"Brexit-related anxiety is a headwind that is blowing more strongly as time goes by," Wraith said.
In the final three months of 2017, Britain recorded the slowest year-on-year growth of any major advanced economy. For this year, the International Monetary Fund predicted last week that Britain would move ahead of Japan and Italy.
Britain's preliminary GDP data - which only has 40 percent of the figures used to calculate the final estimate - precedes most other European numbers. But the French statistics agency has estimated French GDP growth fell to 0.3 percent during the first quarter from 0.7 percent in the quarter before. - Reuters