Though the Office for National Statistics found that the British economy contracted by a monthly 0.1% during August, that was offset by an equivalent upward revision to July's growth rate to 0.4%. That means that the economy would have to contract sharply in September for the third quarter as a whole to be negative. Few economists expect that to happen, not least because of evidence that firms are stockpiling goods ahead of the scheduled Brexit date of Oct. 31.
Firms fear that Britain could leave the European Union without a deal, which would mean widespread disruption to supply chains and the imposition of tariffs and other impediments to trade. Earlier this year, in the run-up to the original Brexit date of March 29, the stockpiling had helped the economy grow 0.5% in the first quarter.
After the Brexit date was postponed, the stockpiling dissipated in the second quarter and the British economy contracted by 0.2%. Were it to shrink again in the third quarter, it would officially be in recession — the common definition is two consecutive quarters of negative growth.
Though a recession appears unlikely for now, economists think growth will remain muted as long as Brexit uncertainty lingers, weighing on business investment in particular. The uncertainty is set to persist. Though the British government says the country will leave the EU at the end of the month, legislation requires Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek an extension to the departure if no withdrawal agreement is secured by Oct. 19.
"Given the likelihood of a further Brexit delay - most likely coupled with a highly unpredictable general election — this situation is unlikely to improve any time soon," said James Smith, developed markets economist at ING. "That said, the economy will most likely avoid a near-term technical recession."
However, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, most economists think a recession would be inevitable. The Bank of England has indicated it could be nearly as bad as the one that followed the global financial crisis of 2008.
"The underlying pace of the economy is growing, but it's just very modest," Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said after unveiling the new polymer 20-pound note, which features the painter JMW Turner.
"That pace of growth which is already weak would weaken further from a no-deal Brexit." There has been speculation that the Bank of England could cut its main interest rate from 0.75% even if Britain avoids a no-deal Brexit, though analysts said the latest growth figures ease the pressure to do so.
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