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One thing’s for certain, much is still unknown

Alan Hawkins

“There are known knowns,” former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said in 2002 describing the cloud of possibilities and information facing policy makers, before going on to describe the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns”.

“There are known knowns,” former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said in 2002 describing the cloud of possibilities and information facing policy makers, before going on to describe the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns”.

With the coalition Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review finally revealed, we now know the overall size of the cuts and roughly where they will be made. Some have hailed this as providing certainty, which is what consumer confidence needs otherwise shoppers will simply keep their cash in their pockets and their cards in their purses. The question will now be: do we all have certainty? In broad terms yes, but all public sector workers must be wondering if the axe will fall on them, so uncertainty is still in abundant supply.

We have to hope there has been a net gain in confidence though. Concern for the unknown future has kept retail under a cloud. The BHF-BSSA second-quarter sales monitor showed sales dropping away around the time of the general election and staying down. The latest BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor saw overall like-for-like growth at a weak 0.5% in September, the net figure masking an inflation-driven rise in food of 2.1% (July to September) against a fall in non-food sales of 0.4%.

Quite a lot of observers seem to think this Christmas will be good, in advance of the VAT hike, but that 2011 will be “challenging”. Concern centres not just on the half a million public sector jobs set to go but on the private sector job losses brought on by cuts in public spending. Can the private sector build on the impressive and encouraging 0.8% third-quarter growth figure and produce a healthy crop of new jobs and optimistic consumers? That’s a known unknown, if ever I heard one.

Alan Hawkins is chief executive of independent retail trade body BHF-BSSA Group

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