Today sees the release of January data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report signalled a renewed expansion of new orders at Northern Ireland companies, supporting a further increase in output. Meanwhile, business confidence strengthened to a 32-month high and firms took on additional staff. Rates of inflation moderated.
Commenting on the latest survey findings, Richard Ramsey, Chief Economist Northern Ireland, Ulster Bank, said:
“Northern Ireland’s private sector started 2024 on a stronger footing with most of the indicators of business conditions improving relative to December. Output expanded for the second month running with manufacturing, services and retail all recording increased levels of business activity in January. Construction remained an outlier with activity falling at a substantial rate and at its fastest pace in 12 months.
“Despite a continued slump in export orders, a notable pick-up in domestic demand led to the first rise in new orders in eight months. A surge in retail demand and a return to growth in manufacturing orders more than offset the continued declines in services and construction.
“Inflationary pressures moderated with December’s increases reversed in January. Despite some pick-up in transportation costs, input cost inflation eased to a 6-month low. Some firms highlighted that re-routing of shipping away from the Suez Canal had caused longer delivery lead times. But there was no overall change in supplier delivery times amongst manufacturers in January. Manufacturers have been cutting their prices for the last 8 months and reduced them in January at their fastest pace since February 2010. Services, construction and retail though all raised prices at a quicker pace.
“Staffing levels continued to rise with manufacturing (marginally), services and construction firms all increasing their headcounts. Meanwhile retailers reduced their staffing levels for the first time in 16 months.
“The biggest surprise in the latest survey was the surge in business confidence. Local firms were their most optimistic about future output levels (in 12 months’ time) since May 2021. The positive sentiment was evident across all four sectors. The renewed optimism was linked to the launch of new products and higher orders. Significantly, the notable improvement in the outlook predates the restoration of Stormont. The impact on sentiment of the political developments should become apparent in February’s survey.”
The main findings of the January survey were as follows:
The headline seasonally adjusted Business Activity Index posted above the 50.0 no-change mark for the second month running in January, ticking down only slightly to 51.4 from 51.6 in December. The latest increase in output reflected a renewed expansion in new orders. Three of the four monitored sectors registered increases in business activity, the exception being construction. The aforementioned increase in new orders was the first in eight months, but only modest overall. The rise in total new business was recorded despite a further reduction in new export orders.
Although spare capacity remained evident at the start of the year, the renewed increase in new orders meant that backlogs of work decreased to the least extent in seven months. Companies continued to take on additional staff, the thirteenth month running in which this has been the case. Higher employment reflected rising activity requirements and the filling of longstanding vacancies. Rates of increase in both input costs and output prices eased in January. Where costs did rise, this was linked to higher wages and transportation costs. The opening month of the year saw a marked improvement in business confidence, with optimism at a 32-month high. The launch of new products and predictions of higher new orders supported confidence.