UK business activity is either in a woeful state, or slowly picking up speed following December’s general election, depending on who you are listening to.
Given the dire insolvency figures for 2019, which I covered in Tuesday’s blog, there is clearly plenty wrong in specific sectors of the economy.
The construction industry, High Street retail and the accommodation and food services were the worst-affected last year but it would be foolish to pretend that any business, from SME to large corporations had an easy time given the global economic slowdown and, more recently, figures revealing that the EU economy is near-stagnant.
Nevertheless, now that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU has passed its first hurdle and that the government has a clear mandate with a huge majority to implement its decisions for the next five years, there are signs of optimism.
The first Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking Business Barometer in 2020 showed a 13-point increase in business confidence, taking it up to 23% in January, the highest it has been for 14 months. The Lloyds barometer calculates overall business confidence by averaging the views of 1,200 companies on their business prospects and optimism about the UK economy.
The most recent IHS Markit/Cips manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI), for January, showed that the sector has enjoyed its best performance for nine months. Another survey by the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) was also positive in suggesting “the biggest wave of optimism among smaller manufacturers for six years” with 45% of these SMEs reporting that they were more optimistic following the election.
In addition, the Bank of England has kept interest rates at the same level, despite expectations that they would be cut. The outgoing BoE Governor Mark Carney said: “the most recent signs are that global growth has stabilised”.
But much of this is about sentiment where the proof of the pudding will be in increased orders on business’ books and improved cash flow.
On the positive side, productivity (output per hour) increased in January, by 0.1% in the services sector and by 5.7% in construction, according to official figures from the ONS (Office for National Statistics). The results of another survey by the finance firm Together concluded that British SMEs plan to invest £1.7bn over the next two years.
It has to be said that much of this “improvement” is from a pretty low base given that the economy ended 2019 at near-stagnation point, so this is not yet really any indication of a growing economy, although it is a positive shift.
There have also been some encouraging government noises about increasing spending to address the economic inequalities between the North and Midlands and the South which could be good news for Northern businesses. Other government initiatives in the pipeline are likely to benefit the house building and construction industries.
Despite the optimism there is a long way to go before most businesses and especially those involved in farming, fishing and food export, will know the shape of any proposed trade deals, with the EU and with the USA so the short-term for them is not especially encouraging.
The Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have all in the last few days signalled a very hard line negotiating position with the EU over the shape of any agreements which the Government hopes to achieve by the end of 2020. Whether this is a negotiation tactic or a ‘die in the ditch’ strategy we shall find out quite soon.
Concerning input to the outcome there have been some reports that the Government has been ignoring requests from business bodies, such as the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) to include their representatives in the forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU.
There are also still the unresolved issues of how the current skills shortage and migrant labour issues will be addressed.
No doubt a level of certainty for some businesses will emerge during the budget, which is due to be announced on March 11. Well at least we shall learn more about the Government’s priorities.
In summary, while it is encouraging that there has been a return to more positive sentiments from UK business leaders, there is a long way to go before we can be confident that they are matched by revitalised UK business activity at home and abroad.