SME manufacturing activity remains listless

Business optimism amongst SME manufacturing firms deteriorated in the three months to October, at the fastest pace since July 2016, according to the latest quarterly CBI SME Trends Survey.

The survey of 240 small and medium-sized manufacturers also found optimism regarding export prospects for the year ahead remained gloomy.

Falling sentiment came against the backdrop of continued malaise in activity. Total new orders fell slightly in the three months to October (-6%), at a similar pace to July (-4%). The decline in new orders was driven by ongoing falls in both domestic orders (-12%) and export orders (-6%). Furthermore, output remained flat in the three months to October (0), and is expected to fall next quarter (-9%).

The most prominent factors cited as likely to limit export orders in the near-term were political/economic conditions abroad (64%) and quota/import licence restrictions (26%), both hitting survey record highs (since Oct 1988).

Meanwhile, headcount declined (-5%) for the first time since January 2013, and is expected to fall at a similar pace in the next quarter.

With sentiment falling and uncertainty high, investment intentions remained poor across the board. In particular, plans for spending on plant & machinery (-20%) and training & re-training (-25%) were at their weakest since the financial crisis.

Alpesh Paleja, CBI Lead Economist, said: “Activity among SME manufacturers remains listless. Firms are caught between the perfect storm of perennial Brexit uncertainty at home, and sluggish growth in the global economy. As well as hitting output, orders and hiring, these issues are depressing investment plans across the board.

“As a first step to lifting the malaise, the next government must get behind business to deliver on a Brexit deal, particularly one that unlocks a smooth transition period. Then the real heavy lifting can begin on forging a future relationship with our biggest trading partner. Ending political uncertainty will enable a renewed focus on domestic priorities, which is critical for the economy’s longer-term growth.”

Key findings – three months to October:

  • Business sentiment deteriorated in the three months to October (-32%), at the fastest pace since July 2016. Meanwhile, optimism regarding export prospects for the year ahead remained gloomy (-31% in October, from -31% in July).
  • Numbers employed in SMEs are expected to fall slightly over the next three months (-6), a similar decline to that seen over the past quarter (-5).
  • New orders fell slightly over the past three months (-6%), reflecting ongoing declines in both domestic (-12%) and export orders (-6%).
  • Investment intentions remained weak, with spending plans on training & retraining (-25%), product & process innovation (-5%), buildings (-25%) and plant & machinery (-20%) all below their long-run averages.
  • Despite the slight decline in headcount, concerns over labour shortages remained high. 27% of SME manufacturers cited skill shortages as likely to limit output in the next three months, well above the long-run average (+15%). One in five SME respondents (20%) cited materials or components an issue.
  • Raw materials stocks continued to rise (+19%), though growth remained below the high seen in April (+33%). Stocks of finished goods rose slightly (+6%), while inventories of work in progress remained flat (-3%).
  • Almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) cited political/economic conditions abroad as likely to limit export orders – a survey record high.  Just over a quarter (26%) were concerned about quotas and import licences, also a survey high. Citations of quotas/import licences as a restricting factor were particularly high among medium-sized manufacturers (57%, up from 6% in July).