London Briefing: Justin King no longer reigns over Sainsbury’s sales growth
Bank of England bucks trend with appointment of Nemat Shafik as deputy to governor Mark Carney
Britain’s J Sainsbury has ended a nine-year run of quarterly sales growth.
If only Justin King had decided to bow out at Sainsbury’s six months earlier.
In his 10 years as chief executive of Britain’s third-largest supermarkets group, he has presided over an unrivalled 36 consecutive quarters of sales growth.
But that record came shuddering to a halt yesterday, as King found himself in the unaccustomed position of having to tell the City sales had fallen.
It seems even Sainsbury’s can no longer resist the pressures that have been taking their toll on rivals such as Tesco and Morrison’s for quite some time.
The market as a whole is growing at its slowest rate since 2005, King said, as he reported a 3.1 per cent fall in underlying sales over the 10 weeks to March 15th. Total sales for the fourth quarter were also lower, falling 1 per cent excluding fuel.
To a certain extent, Sainsbury’s is the victim of its own success – it did so well a year earlier when others were hit by the horsemeat scandal that it was up against some extremely tough comparisons. But the group is also starting to be squeezed by the relentless march of the discount chains, Aldi and Lidl.
Last week, Morrison’s sent shockwaves through the sector when it issued a stark profits warning and pledged it would pour as much as £1 billion into price cuts over the next three years in a head-on battle with the low-cost grocery chains.
The prospect of a damaging price war sent shares tumbling across the sector. But, while King admitted that “the pricing pencil was being sharpened” he played down what the Morrison’s boss Dalton Philips has described as the “brutal reality” of a market enduring its biggest shake-up since the 1950s.
Making it clear that Sainsbury’s will not be pushed into a price war, King pointed out that discounters have been around for decades – Kwik Save in the early eighties, for example – and that Sainsbury’s own brand goods, which account for 51 per cent of sales, are already around a fifth cheaper than branded goods.
It wasn’t all gloom in what was King’s penultimate trading statement before he steps down in July. Sainsbury’s has maintained its market share at 17 per cent and is still regarded by analysts as the strongest of the supermarket chains.
It will take more than a couple of quarterly sales declines in a tough market to seriously damage the group – or tarnish the reputation of its outgoing chief executive. But there’s no doubt that King’s successor, commercial director Mike Coupe, has a far tougher time ahead.
Is Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, being lined up as the first female governor of the Bank of England?
As part of one of the biggest shake-ups in the 320-year history of Britain’s central bank, Shafik has been appointed as a deputy to governor Mark Carney.
The 51-year-old economist certainly has an impressive CV – as deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, she was already Britain’s highest-ranking official on an international body.
At the age of only 36, she became the youngest ever vice president at the World Bank.
Born in Egypt, Shafik is both a UK and US national. Her appointment helps address the lack of women at the top in the Bank of England, something Carney has said he is determined to change.
She will also sit on the Monetary Policy Committee, ending four years of male-only membership of the interest rate setting team.
Shafik will be one of four deputy governors at the Bank and, as head of markets and banking, one of her specific roles will be to manage the Bank’s eventual exit from its £375 billion quantitative easing programme. She will also help push through Carney’s reforms at Threadneedle Street.
And these reforms will be radical. In a speech last night, Carney said he intended to “create a central bank for the 21st century that combines the finest aspects of our history and traditions with the best of the modern and new.”
Data sets will be opened up to the public and there will be greater engagement with external stakeholders in an effort to improve the Bank’s poor record on forecasting.
The Libor scandal and the unfolding foreign exchange rigging scandal have, the governor said, underlined the need for reform, to ensure markets are “fair, effective and efficient.”
Carney added: “The age of informal responsibilities, nods, winks secrecy and instinct is long past.” So too, by the looks of it, is the era of the Bank of England as a boys’ club.
Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com