Service sector sentiment continues to deteriorate

CBI
Rain Newton-Smith

Business optimism across the services sector fell in the three months to November, but at a slower pace, according to the latest quarterly CBI Service Sector Survey.

Sentiment declined in both the business & professional services sector and the consumer services sector with both sub-sectors reporting falling sentiment for over a year.

Business & professional services – which includes accountancy, legal and marketing firms – saw volumes decline over the last quarter after a brief period of stabilisation in the three months to August. Volumes are expected to fall at a similar pace in the three months to February 2020. In consumer services – which includes hotels, bars, restaurants, travel and leisure firms – volumes declined at a sharper rate in the three months to November, marking the fifth consecutive quarterly fall. Consumer services volumes are set to fall at a faster pace next quarter.

Meanwhile, cost pressures eased in both sectors. Yet cost inflation continues to outpace price growth in services, putting pressure on profitability. In business & professional services, profitability fell particularly sharply in the three months to November, matching the pace in the previous quarter, which was the fastest decline since November 2011. Profitability is expected to fall at the same pace next quarter. Consumer services profitability also declined. Next quarter, profits are expected to fall at a quicker rate in consumer services.

Employment fell at the fastest pace since May 2017 in business & professional services, with headcount set to fall at the same pace next quarter. Employment expanded at a steady pace in consumer services, in line with the long-run average.

Over the year ahead, business & professional services firms expect to cut back on investment in land and buildings, as well as in vehicles, plant and machinery – with the latter experiencing the weakest expectations since August 2010. Business & professional firms expect to increase spending on IT, but to a lesser extent than in the August survey.

Meanwhile, consumer services firms expect to keep spending on land and buildings and vehicles, plant and machinery broadly the same. Capital expenditure on IT is expected to increase over the year ahead, marking an improvement from the previous quarter, when investment was expected to be unchanged.

Business & professional services firms are pessimistic about the prospects for business expansion over the year ahead, but to a lesser extent than in the previous survey (which was the most negative balance since February 2009). Consumer services are neutral about the outlook for business expansion in the year ahead.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI Chief Economist, said: “The current economic climate is holding back UK services firms, which are reporting falling sentiment, declining volumes and weaker profitability. Neither is the outlook expected to improve, with firms pessimistic about their prospects for expansion, investment plans having been scaled back and hiring on hold.

“Whoever forms the next Government, it’s essential they commit to refocusing on the domestic agenda, to propel the UK economy forward – prioritising skills and infrastructure investment, as well as reaching net zero by 2050. And securing a good Brexit deal which protects our world-beating services sector, which forms 80% of our economy.”

Key findings

Business and Professional Services

  • Sentiment about the general business situation continued to deteriorate but at a slower pace than the previous quarter (-20% from -31%)
  • Business volumes declined last quarter, after a brief period of stabilisation in the three months to August (-16% from -2%). Volumes are expected to fall at a similar pace in the three months to February 2020 (-14%)
  • Growth in total costs per person eased, sitting in line with the long-run average (+28% from +41%, long-run average: +28%). Costs are expected to grow at a similar pace next quarter (+31%)
  • Average selling prices fell slightly (-5%), but are set to stabilise next quarter (+2%)
  • Profitability fell sharply in the three months to November, once again the fastest decline since November 2011 (-25% from -25% in August) and is expected to fall at the same pace next quarter (-25%)
  • Employment fell at the fastest pace since May 2017 (-4% from +8%) with headcount set to fall at the same pace next quarter (-4%)
  • Firms expect to cut back on land and buildings (-19%) and vehicles, plant and machinery spending (-15%), with the latter the weakest expectations since August 2010. Business and professional firms expect to increase spending on IT, but to a lesser extent than the August survey (+9%, long-run average: +20%)
  • Uncertainty about demand was cited as the key factor likely to limit capital expenditure (60%)
  • Business and professional services firms remain negative about the outlook for business expansion over the year ahead (-18%), nevertheless to a lesser extent than the previous survey which was the most negative since February 2009 (-54%).

Consumer services

  • Optimism about the general business situation continued to deteriorate at a similar pace to August (-25% from -28%)
  • Business volumes declined at a sharper rate in the three months to November, marking the fifth consecutive quarterly fall (-13% from -8%). Volumes are set to fall at a quicker pace next quarter (-18%)
  • Cost growth eased to below the long-run average (+28% from +42%, long-run average: +37%) in the three months to November but growth is expected to strengthen slightly next quarter (+33%)
  • Average selling prices were unchanged (+1% from +12%) but are set to grow modestly next quarter (+5%)
  • Profitability declined in the three months to November, after stabilising in the quarter to August (-14% from +1%). Profits are expected to fall at a quicker rate next quarter (-24%)
  • Employment growth was steady and remained in line with average (+9% from +10%, long-run average: +9%), with growth expected to be broadly unchanged next quarter (+8%)
  • Consumer services firms expect to keep spending on land and buildings (+1%) and vehicles, plant and machinery (-3%) broadly the same. Capital expenditure on IT is expected to increase (+15%), after unchanged expectations last quarter (-1%)
  • Consumer services are neutral about the outlook for business expansion in the year ahead (-1% from -6%), the strongest expectations since August 2018.