By Andy Bruce and David Milliken
LONDON (Reuters) – The British economy shrank unexpectedly for the first time since 2012 in the second quarter, dragged down by a slump in manufacturing just as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to leave the European Union with or without a divorce deal.
In the most startling economic warning sign since the 2016 Brexit referendum, gross domestic product fell at a quarterly rate of 0.2% in the three months to June, below all forecasts in a Reuters poll that had pointed to a flat reading.
Sterling fell to $1.2080, matching the 31-month low it reached on Aug. 1. Against the euro, the pound sank to a new two-year low of 90.70 pence, trading last 0.6% weaker at 92.66 pence.
Year-on-year economic growth slid to 1.2% from 1.8% in the first quarter, Britain’s Office for National Statistics said, its weakest since the start of 2018. Annual growth in June alone was the weakest since August 2013 at 1.0%.
“The economy is stalling,” PwC senior economist Mike Jakeman said. He said the Brexit crisis and the uncertain global outlook left Britain’s economy on a “knife-edge” for the third quarter.
Many car factories ramped up manufacturing at the start of the year and brought forward production breaks to prepare for Britain’s original Brexit date of March 29, but the divorce was delayed by then Prime Minister Theresa May.
“Manufacturing output fell back after a strong start to the year, with production brought forward ahead of the UK’s original departure date from the EU,” ONS statistician Rob Kent Smith said.
On winning the top job last month, Johnson set up a showdown with the EU by vowing to negotiate a new divorce deal and threatening that, if the bloc refused, he would take Britain out on Oct. 31 without a deal.
But the economic hazard warning lights are flashing just as the trade battle between the United States and China unsettles the world economy.
Finance minister Sajid Javid said the global context was challenging but the fundamentals of the British economy were strong.
“Wages are growing, employment is at a record high and we’re forecast to grow faster than Germany, Italy and Japan this year,” Javid said.
Many investors say a no-deal Brexit would send shock waves through the world economy, tip Britain into a recession, roil financial markets and weaken London’s position as the pre-eminent international financial center.
“If it comes to no deal, it’s not anything that I’m frightened of, I’m not worried about, I think we will be ready for it, we will get through it, and we will come out stronger and even more resilient,” Javid told Sky.
June manufacturing data was unexpectedly poor and output for the quarter contracted at the fastest rate since early 2009, when Britain was mired in recession.
Private-sector business surveys have shown the manufacturing and construction sectors both contracted in July, while the larger services sector eked out only modest growth.
Britain’s economy has slowed since June 2016’s vote to leave the EU, with annual growth rates dropping from more than 2% before the referendum to expand by 1.4% last year.
Ever since the 2016 EU referendum, the pound has gyrated to the rhetoric of the Brexit divorce: after the result was announced, it had the biggest one-day fall since the era of free-floating exchange rates was introduced in the early 1970s.
The finance minister-in-waiting for the opposition Labour Party, John McDonnell, said: “The Tories’ Brexit bungling, including Boris Johnson now taking us toward no-deal, is breaking the economy.”
“It’s time for an end to this incompetence from successive Conservative governments – we need a general election and a Labour government to turn this country around.”
(Additional reporting by Olga Cotaga; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence)