The effect of those "tanker strikes": fuel sales up 7.2%

Could the panic buying have boosted GDP?

A petrol station with no fuel.
A petrol station with no fuel. But was it deliberate?

The retail sales index for March 2012 is out, and it is stronger than expected. Year-on-year, sales increased in value by 5.7 per cent and by volume by 3.3 per cent. But there was one line in particular which caught everyone's eye:

Sales volumes growth was driven by other stores, non-store retailing and predominantly automotive fuel.

The volume of automotive fuel sales increased by 7.2 per cent in March compared to March 2011, while the breakdown shows that excluding fuel sales, retail growth was 4.9 per cent (value) or 2.8 per cent (volume), reductions of 0.8 or 0.5 points respectively.

When the government first sparked panic buying over the potential of a fuel tanker strike (which, if not announced today, will definitely not happen unless a second vote is held), there were suggestions that it may have been deliberately induced to boost GDP for the first quarter of 2012. Given we are on the knife-edge of a technical recession, even a 0.1 percentage point increase in GDP growth could be hugely psychologically important.

While it remains unlikely to be deliberate, the possibility that it could actually have that effect is no longer quite so laughable. If even half of the growth in fuel sales was due to the panic, that would mean an increase of 0.4 percentage points in total sales value in March 2012. Given fuel doesn't go off, that would likely be reflected by a similar dip in April 2012 – but April is in the second quarter.

Unpacking the various effects will be tricky, but it would be fascinating indeed if one of the worst ever news cycles for the government resulted in preventing an even worse one.