The latest figures from Suffolk Chamber of Commerce’s Quarterly Economic Survey (QES) for the third three months of 2018 show a mixed picture as to how the county’s businesses are faring. In general terms, however, business activity and sentiment is lower across most criteria researched than for other parts of the eastern region.
These results are based on responses from 112 Suffolk-based organisations, with 30 from the manufacturing sector and 82 involved in services.
Overall, Suffolk businesses continue to report largely favourable performances, with positive responses outweighing negatives ones in most cases. The exceptions to this are to be found among services companies’ export sales and orders, both of which slipped into negative territory for the first time for a number of years. This means that more service sector respondents reported a fall in their export sales and orders than those that recorded a rise.
Manufacturers reported somewhat healthier international trade figures, but these were still down on the previous quarter. Indeed, overseas sales for manufacturers is now at its lowest levels seen over the past 18 months.
In terms of domestic sales and orders, service companies report slight declines against both, with manufacturers conversely experiencing slightly stronger positive figures.
Both sectors were generally optimistic about future jobs growth in the economy – although these figures have come off from their recent peaks, but they also reported a contraction in their own efforts to recruit.
The percentage of manufacturers which tried to recruit fell from 100% in Q2 to 83% in Q3, with services showing an even greater fall at 61% from 85%.
These figures are broadly in line with the east of England as a whole and remain better than those being recorded across the UK, where the percentage of services firms attempting to hire new staff is at its lowest level for 25 years.
Businesses remain confident that turnover and profitability will continue to increase into 2019, although the percentage reporting these positive forecasts have declined.
Overall, businesses are reporting a higher level of concern than before about the negative impact of key external factors on them, with the top three being exchange rates, competition and corporate taxation.
However, Suffolk manufacturing businesses are now under-performing against the rest of the east of England as a whole across virtually all of the criteria covered by the QES.
The key headlines from the survey are:
The balance of manufacturing firms reporting an increase in domestic sales fell from +17% to +20%, and fell from +27% to +32% for those in services
The balance of manufacturing firms reporting an increase in domestic orders rose from +14% to +18%, and fell from +18% to +11% for those in services
The balance of manufacturing firms reporting an increase in overseas sales fell from +17% to +15%, and fell from +19% to – 5% for those in services
The balance of manufacturing firms reporting an increase in overseas orders rose from +0% to +11%, and fell from +2% to -5% for those in services
The balance of manufacturing firms reporting an increase in employment rose from +11% to +43%, and fell from +25% to +18% for those in services
The balance of manufacturing firms anticipating a future increase in employment rose from +25% to +28%, and fell from +28% to +17% for those in services
The balance of manufacturing firms which had attempted to recruit staff fell from +100% to +83%, with those in services falling from +85% to +61%
The balance of manufacturing firms projecting an increase in turnover fell from +38% to +33%, with those in services decreasing from +49% to +32%
The balance of manufacturing firms projecting an increase in profitability fell from +22% to +7%, with those in services decreasing from +22% to +10%
Paul Simon, Suffolk Chamber’s communications and marketing manager, said “when looked at as a snapshot of business performance and sentiment, Suffolk’s QES figures paint a fairly positive picture.
“Aside from the wobble among service companies over export sales and orders, every other criteria is within positive territory.
“However, when looked at in context, we seem to be experiencing an ongoing downwards trend pretty much across the board.
“The reduction in hiring and the growth in worries about the impact of external factors, especially as the countdown to Brexit commences need to be taken seriously by policy makers.
“Once again, these results will strengthen our resolve to work through the British Chambers of Commerce to fix the business fundamentals.”
Suffolk Chamber is grateful to Suffolk Knowledge, part of Suffolk County Council, for providing the analysis of the QES.