Business news

Renewed rise in business activity but demand remains subdued

Posted By:
Ulster Bank

15th Jan 2024

Today sees the release of December data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report indicated that business activity returned to growth in the Northern Ireland private sector, but new orders continued to fall as demand remained subdued and the pace of job creation eased. Rates of inflation of both input costs and output prices quickened, but were softer than the averages for 2023 as a whole.


Commenting on the latest survey findings, Richard Ramsey, Chief Economist Northern Ireland, Ulster Bank, said:

“Northern Ireland’s private sector returned to growth for the first time in six months in December. Retail and manufacturing joined services in expansion mode. Retailers saw a sharp rise in sales following seven successive months of decline.  Manufacturers and services companies recorded more modest rates of growth while construction remains mired in recession. Construction output has fallen almost continuously over the last two-and-a-half years while new construction orders have been falling almost continuously for three years.

“December’s return to growth, while welcome, could prove difficult to sustain. New demand remains weak with order books shrinking for the seventh month running. Retail was the only one of the four sectors to record a pick-up in demand last month. Despite subdued demand, Northern Ireland’s private sector continued to increase staffing levels, albeit at its slowest pace in twelve months. Recruiting staff continues to present difficulties for firms. Manufacturers reduced their headcount for the second month running with December’s decline the sharpest in almost three years. This suggests some manufacturing firms are adjusting their business conditions to the reduced external demand.    

“Inflationary pressures ended 2023 significantly below where they started the year. But there are signs of costs pressures ticking up again not least in terms of shipping costs with container ships being re-routed away from the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Supply-chain disruption could once again be a feature of the global economy in the year ahead. Higher wages were widely cited as a cost pressure in the latest survey while some firms mentioned increased material costs. Outside of construction, Northern Ireland’s private sector remains confident for growth in 2024. But concerns about the lack of government at Stormont remain.”   

The main findings of the December survey were as follows:

The headline seasonally adjusted Business Activity Index rose back above the 50.0 no-change mark for the first time in six months in December, posting 51.6 from 49.2 in November. Activity rose in manufacturing, services and retail, but fell in construction. Data suggested that the rise in activity in part reflected the completion of outstanding business, levels of which decreased sharply in December. Firms worked through backlogs amid a further reduction in new orders, albeit one that was the least marked in seven months of decline.

Companies in Northern Ireland raised employment again, but only marginally and to the smallest extent in the period of job creation which covered each month of 2023. Some firms highlighted difficulties finding new staff. A marked rise in input costs was recorded, primarily due to increased wages. In turn, companies raised their own selling prices at a solid pace that was the fastest in three months. In both cases, however, rates of inflation were softer than the averages for the year as a whole. Firms remained optimistic that output will increase over the coming year, with positive sentiment reflecting hopes for a rise in new orders and business investment plans. That said, confidence eased slightly from November.