Optimism among UK’s SME manufacturers deteriorates

Business optimism among the UK’s small and medium-sized manufacturing firms deteriorated in the three months to July 2019, at the fastest pace since July 2016. That’s according to the latest quarterly SME Trends Survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

The survey of 268 small and medium-sized manufacturers revealed that optimism about export prospects for the year ahead also worsened, to the greatest extent since the financial crisis (April 2009).

Activity was weak among SME manufacturers, with both domestic and export orders falling at the quickest rates in several years (since April 2013 and October 2015 respectively). In addition, output stagnated following three years of continuous growth. Firms expect domestic orders to continue falling over the next three months, and output and export orders to remain flat.

Other results include:

  • Investment intentions for the next year remained poor, with manufacturers expecting to spend less on buildings, plant and machinery, and training and retraining. Capital expenditure on products and process innovation is expected to be flat relative to the past year.
  • Growth in stocks slowed noticeably, following a record-high pace of growth (for raw materials and finished goods stocks) last quarter. Nonetheless, stocks of raw materials particularly continued to grow significantly. Manufacturers expect inventories of all categories to fall slightly next quarter.
  • Headcount was flat in the quarter to July, following six years of continuous growth, and is expected to remain broadly steady next quarter.
  • Growth in output prices also slowed sharply, with domestic prices flat and export prices falling, both following continuous growth over the last two and a half years. This continued to be outpaced by costs inflation, albeit with the latter slowing on the previous quarter.

New PM must set out a pro-enterprise path

Alpesh Paleja, CBI Principal Economist, commented: “Against the backdrop of slower global growth and continued Brexit uncertainty, optimism among SME manufacturers is waning. With orders falling and output and headcount stalling, the new Prime Minister must restore confidence and set out a pro-enterprise path that supports SME manufacturers.

“Securing a Brexit deal ahead of the October deadline remains a top priority for smaller manufacturers. Firms will also be looking for early signs of how domestic priorities – from fixing the apprenticeship levy to improving infrastructure – will be delivered.”

Key findings from the survey

  • 9% of SME manufacturers said they were more optimistic regarding their business situation, while 37% said they were less optimistic, giving a balance of -28% (from -12% in April 2019). Optimism about export prospects for the year ahead worsened again (-31% from -25% in April 2019).
  • 22% of firms said output volumes increased and 24% said they decreased, giving a balance of -2% (from +9% in April). Output is expected to remain steady over the next quarter (+1%).
  • 29% of SME manufacturers reported an increase in total new orders, and 34% said they decreased, giving a rounded balance of -4% (from +11% in April).
  • Domestic orders (-13% from +2% in April) fell at their quickest rate since April 2013, while export orders declined (-19% from +6% in April) at the fastest pace since October 2015.
  • Looking ahead, SME manufacturers expect domestic orders to continue falling at a similar rate (-11%), and export orders to be flat (-1%).
  • Numbers employed were broadly unchanged, with 19% of firms saying they had seen growth in headcount and 21% saying they had seen a reduction, giving a balance of -2%. Growth is expected to remain steady next quarter (+3%).
  • SME manufacturers plan to reduce investment in training and retraining (-19%), buildings (-20%) and plant and machinery (-19%) in the year ahead. Capital expenditure for product and process innovation is expected to be flat (+1%).
  • Growth in stocks of raw materials (+10%) and finished goods (+5%) slowed noticeably following a record-high pace of growth in the quarter to April 2019. Stocks of work in progress were flat (0%). Manufacturers expect stocks of all three categories to fall slightly next quarter (-4%, -7% and -5% respectively).
  • The proportion of firms working below capacity picked up (62% from 52% in April) to its highest since April 2013.

Is your business prepared for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit? For advice on the steps you need to take, email me or call me on 020 7099 2621.