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UK economy set for best quarter since 2016 despite flat August

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The UK economy appears to be on course for its best calendar quarter in almost two years, despite a weaker-than-expected performance in August.

[LONDON] The UK economy appears to be on course for its best calendar quarter in almost two years, despite a weaker-than-expected performance in August.

Gross domestic product grew 0.7 per cent in the three months through August, the Office for National Statistics said Wednesday.

In August alone, output was unchanged. Economists had predicted growth of 0.1 per cent. However, a similar performance in September would leave growth over the third quarter at 0.6 per cent, up from 0.4 per cent in the second and the most since the end of 2016.

The figures help to explain why the Bank of England raised interest rates to their highest since 2009 in August. Annual growth in the latest three months was 1.5 per cent, around the BOE's "speed limit."

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The pound was little changed after the data, trading at US$1.3154 as of 9.37 am in London.

The economy benefited over the summer from a record heatwave that boosted retail sales and the dominant services industry as well as construction projects. Manufacturing also gained. Overall growth in June and July was revised up by 0.1 percentage point in each month.

In August, the services sector was unchanged and building output fell 0.7 per cent. Industrial production rose 0.2 per cent as higher oil, gas and utility output offset a 0.2 per cent drop in manufacturing.

The question for BOE policy makers is the same one they faced earlier this year after snow disruptions saw growth grind to a near standstill in the first quarter. Is the pickup in recent months just weather-related, and therefore temporary, or a sign of underlying momentum that threatens to fuel inflation?

The labor market remains tight but with Brexit uncertainty dampening sentiment -- business investment has fallen for two consecutive quarters - the BOE is not expected to raise rates again before Britain leaves the European Union in March, with or without a deal.

The wider risks to the economy were highlighted this week by the International Monetary Fund, which cut its global growth forecast for the first time in more than two years amid escalating trade tensions and stresses in emerging markets.

Exporters have struggled to take full advantage of the weak pound and now growth is slowing in the euro region, which buys over 40 per cent of British shipments.

In August, the trade deficit widened to £11.2 billion (S$17.7 billion) as imports increased faster than exports. Still, the shortfall remains on course to narrow in the third quarter from the elevated level posted in the second and contribute to economic growth.

BLOOMBERG