Business optimism in the UK’s manufacturing sector improved significantly in the quarter to January 2020, at the fastest pace since April 2014. Meanwhile, export sentiment continued to fall, but was noticeably less gloomy compared with last quarter. Those were the overall findings of the latest Industrial Trends survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
The survey of 300 manufacturing firms also reported that investment intentions improved, following particularly glum expectations in October. A record proportion of firms expect to authorise capital expenditure in order to expand capacity. But a record proportion of manufacturers were concerned that a shortage of labour could constrain investment spending over the year ahead.
The improvement in manufacturers’ sentiment belied poor activity over the quarter. Output volumes in the three months to January fell at a quick pace similar to last month’s, largely reflecting a sharp fall in motor vehicles output. This marked the eighth month in a row of flat or falling output volumes. Total new orders fell at the quickest rate since the financial crisis. This mirrored a similarly fast fall in domestic orders. However, orders and output are expected to recover slightly in the quarter ahead.
Headcount fell in the quarter to January at the fastest pace since the financial crisis, but firms expect the rate of decline to slow next quarter.
“Boost to sentiment belies poor trading conditions”
CBI Deputy Chief Economist Anna Leach commented: “With business optimism improving at its fastest pace since 2014 and some of the squeeze on investment plans lifting, it’s clear manufacturers are entering the new year with a spring in their step. Firms are now planning to invest more in plant and machinery, which will ultimately help increase capacity and output.
“However, this boost to sentiment belies poor trading conditions over the past quarter, with output and orders still declining. If we are to build on this rebound in optimism among UK manufacturers, it is crucial for the UK and EU to establish a trade deal that supports growth in this sector.”
Government must address underlying issues
Tom Crotty, Group Director at INEOS and Chair of the CBI Manufacturing Council, said: “The boost to optimism in the manufacturing sector is very encouraging, given the difficult environment that firms have faced in recent months. However, it is clear that the sector is not yet out of the woods in terms of performance, which means that this optimism could prove to be short-lived unless the government use their newfound strength to help address underlying issues holding back manufacturers.
“Manufacturers are ready to work with the government to make real progress on key domestic challenges such as increasing productivity, addressing skills shortages, improving sustainability and tackling climate change.”
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