Northern Ireland’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) churned out more record highs and lows of the positive variety in Q3 2019. However, looking through all the statistical noise there are still signs that suggest the labour market cycle has turned. A surge in self-employment has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of ‘employees’ working. Meanwhile the total number of hours worked and average hours worked has eased back from its highs earlier in the year. Given the marked deterioration in business conditions in Q3 and Q4 it is expected that this will increasingly become evident within the labour market in the coming quarters. Q2 2019 is still likely to have represented the peak in the total number of employee jobs as measured in the Quarterly Employment Survey.
Northern Ireland’s labour market continued to break records into the summer months. Unemployment fell to a new low of 2.8% and employment hit a record high of 779k jobs in Q2. That follows 14 consecutive quarters of growth. Looking at the private sector specifically shows a winning streak that is even longer, extending to five years. But can it last? There are signs that the jobs machine is slowing. The number added in the latest quarter marked a three-and-a-half year low. Meanwhile, services, the largest sector of the economy, saw its rate of growth almost grind to a halt.
Northern Ireland’s record breaking labour market has been in the spotlight for quite some time. The focus has been on unemployment hitting all-time lows and the number of jobs reaching all-time highs in Q2 2019. In terms of job numbers, Northern Ireland’s labour market is clearly in a good place, having recovered all the jobs lost in the recession and created tens of thousands of additional jobs too. But what about wages and earnings?
Northern Ireland’s labour market statistics have provided a plentiful source of positivity in recent years. Unemployment has hit lows that no economist forecasted and employment has never been higher. The latest batch of data in the Labour Force Survey (June – August 2019) reveals some more record highs (e.g. employment amongst males). However, there are a variety of indicators that suggest that the labour market is on the turn. These signs of a weakening labour market must be placed in the appropriate context; namely, Northern Ireland’s labour market has never been stronger. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate remains at the ridiculously low level of 2.9%, just a shade above last month’s record low of 2.8%.
Today sees the release of September data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – indicated that the Northern Ireland private sector moved deeper into contraction, as Brexit uncertainty impacted negatively on firms’ operations. Output, new orders and employment all fell at sharper rates, while business sentiment dropped to a new record low.
Today sees the release of August data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – suggested that Brexit and associated economic uncertainty led to ongoing declines in the Northern Ireland private sector during August. Marked reductions in output and new orders were recorded, while business confidence hit a new low and job shedding intensified.
Northern Ireland’s private sector reported a marked deterioration in business conditions in the second quarter. July’s PMI survey suggests more of the same at the start of the third quarter as output, orders, exports and employment continued to fall last month. The rate of decline across all of these indicators did ease in July relative to June. However, the pace of contraction in output, orders and exports remained significant with output and orders falling at a faster rate than in any other UK region.
Firms notched up their seventh successive monthly fall in staffing levels; albeit the pace of job losses in the latest survey was relatively modest. Indeed, a number of respondents’ efforts to hire were thwarted by a lack of suitable staff. Clearly the lack of supply of workers remains a key issue in the labour market rather than simply waning demand.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that 2019 has been a year of decline for the retail sector. However, there are actually now some signs that the rapid decline in sales is stabilising. Given the further depreciation in sterling, cross-border shopping is likely to play a more prominent role in the period ahead.
Manufacturing has seen a sharp reversal of fortunes in recent months with the sector posting the sharpest rates of decline in jobs, orders and output of the four sectors. Last month manufacturers reported their steepest fall in output since April 2009. The ongoing fog of Brexit uncertainty is one contributory factor alongside a global manufacturing slowdown.
Elsewhere, services firms, outside of retail, recorded a deterioration in business conditions in July. Significantly, services orders have been falling at an accelerating rate in each of the last five months. Indeed, July saw orders contract at the fastest rate in over seven-and-a-half years. It is a similar story for the construction industry with orders lurching lower again for the eleventh month running.
The employment picture remains the most positive aspect of the latest survey. But it is well known that the labour market is a lagging indicator of economic conditions. Shrinking order books, Brexit uncertainty and the ramping up of tensions between China and the US provide a formidable environment for local firms. Business conditions could well get worse before they start getting better.
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A report, which acts as a barometer for the local jobs market indicates that although job hiring is slowing slightly, the IT sector is showing no sign of a slump. Belfast remains a key location for global companies to invest and have access to a talented workforce.
Today sees the release of June data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – signalled a deepening downturn in the Northern Ireland private sector. Brexit uncertainty led to sharper falls in output and new orders, with firms pessimistic regarding the 12-month outlook.
A weaker than expected US employment report is adding to rising concerns about the global economy, fuelling expectations that the Federal Reserve will cut rates soon, possibly this summer. ECB president Draghi signalled the door is open for further monetary measures to support the weak Euro area economy, if needed.