When measuring performance it is important to know what success looks like. It is also necessary to have suitable benchmarks to measure progress along the way. As far as the economic recovery is concerned, getting back to pre-pandemic levels of output, activity and employment satisfies both these criteria. Earlier this week we saw that the number of employees on Northern Ireland payrolls hit a record high for the third month running having eclipsed pre-pandemic levels of employment back in June. On the face of it this looks like mission accomplished until you consider that this is flattered by furlough with 36,100 on the Job Retention Scheme as of the 31 July 2021. Furthermore, focussing on only one measure of labour market success can ignore huge failures in other areas – e.g. self-employment is down over one-quarter from its pre-COVID-19 levels.
So what about output? How is it faring?
It is perhaps worth rewinding back to what the output figures were showing over the last year or so.
2020 was a year of extremes. Record rates of decline in Q2 followed by record rates of expansion in Q3. Lockdown restrictions had the effect of turning economic activity off and on. But as the pandemic progressed, subsequent lockdowns have been less severe on economic activity than the first. Many businesses have been able to adapt and function throughout lockdowns or pivot into new markets. All sectors with the exception of construction saw steeper peak-to-trough declines in this recession than the one that followed the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The trajectory of economic output has largely followed a bungee jump. The initial fall and rebound being the most extreme, but subsequent declines and rebounds will moderate. For example, Northern Ireland’s private sector output fell by only 2.3% q/q in Q1 2021 – a period of lockdown – which compared favourably with the massive 19.5% quarterly contraction in Q2 2020 (Lockdown 1.0).
Today sees the release of December data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – signalled further reductions in output and new orders, but rates of decline softened. Meanwhile, companies increased their staffing levels for the first time in a year and confidence regarding the 12-month outlook for activity improved amid reduced uncertainty around Brexit. On the price front, the rate of input cost inflation softened again and companies lowered their output prices for the first time in over four years.
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.
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.
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 that the Northern Ireland private sector ended the second quarter of 2018 on a positive note, with sharper rises in output and new orders recorded. There were further signs of increasing inflationary pressures, however. Meanwhile, business confidence dipped and was the lowest for almost a year.
Today sees the release of May data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – signalled that growth in the Northern Ireland private sector picked up, with faster increases in output, new orders and employment recorded. Meanwhile, higher fuel costs contributed to a pick-up in the rate of input price inflation and output prices continued to rise sharply.
During George Osborne’s reign at the Treasury, addressing the UK’s productivity challenge took a back seat role to tackling the deficit. In Osborne’s first budget statement (June 2010) the word productivity wasn’t even mentioned. Conversely, ‘deficit’ was uttered 19 times. Indeed, six of the former Chancellor’s budget speeches failed to mention the word productivity at all. However, Osborne’s last two budgets did see a new focus on productivity with the word appearing 11 times in March. This was perhaps in recognition of the UK’s woeful productivity performance which couldn’t be ignored any longer. Tackling the deficit assumed productivity growth would hold up. It didn’t. Continue reading →
A raft of economic data was released today covering the labour market as well output figures. The figures are broadly positive – not least the fact that the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen.
However, there are a number of challenges – notably the fact that the number of people claiming other benefits is actually rising by as much as the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is falling. Listen to our podcasts to hear more.
Today sees the release of August data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI®. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by Markit – pointed to a rise in activity following the previous month’s decline. That said, new orders decreased for the second successive month. The rate of input cost inflation accelerated to the fastest since November 2011 and firms also raised their output prices at a sharper pace. Continue reading →