Survey shows stalling economy

The Beating Heart of the Economy

The British Chambers of Commerce’s quarterly economic survey finds that the UK economy ended 2018 stuck in a weak holding pattern, with stagnating levels of growth and business confidence as a result of heightened Brexit uncertainty and other economic pressures.

Key findings:

  • Percentage of services firms reporting an increase in domestic sales and orders drops to two-year low
  • Recruitment difficulties in manufacturing joint highest on record, services sector recruitment difficulties hover near record-high
  • Price pressures rise further for businesses, particularly manufacturers

The results underline the impact that the current levels of uncertainty are having on a stalling economy as growth in domestic sales and orders reduced, recruitment difficulties stand near record highs and price pressures persist.  In services, the percentage of firms reporting an increase in domestic sales and orders weakened to its lowest in two years. Domestic activity among UK manufacturers also moderated.

The findings highlight the extent to which labour shortages have risen in the UK as four-fifths (81%) of manufacturers that tried to recruit report difficulties in finding the right staff – the joint highest level since the survey began in 1989. In services, the level (70%) hovers close to the record high recorded in the previous quarter (72%).

The survey results indicate an increase in price pressures facing firms. The percentage of manufacturers expecting to raise prices is at its highest in a year and is almost three times higher than its pre-EU referendum average. Cashflow continues to be a concern for both sectors, with the balance of firms reporting improved cash flow remaining weak.

Suren Thiru, Head of Economics at BCC, said:

“Domestic activity in services weakened for the second successive quarter, with consumer-facing firms particularly downbeat amid subdued household spending levels and tightening cash-flow. Manufacturing had an underwhelming three months, with significant cost pressures and moderating global demand weighing heavy.

“With results showing that price pressures from wage settlements remain relatively muted, there continues to be sufficient scope to keep interest rates on hold in 2019, particularly given the significant economic and political turbulence.”

Responding to the results, Dr Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said:

“Throughout much of 2018, UK businesses were subjected to a barrage of political noise and drama, so it’s no surprise to see muted domestic demand and investment. With little clarity on the trading conditions they’ll face in two months’ time, companies are understandably holding back on spending and making big decisions about their futures. Given the magnitude of the recruitment difficulties, business concerns about the government’s recent blueprint for future immigration rules must be taken seriously – and companies must be able to access skills at all levels without heavy costs or bureaucracy.”

Business groups appeal to politicians to prevent ‘No Deal’

The UK’s five leading business groups, representing thousands of businesses across the UK employing millions of people, have united to call on politicians to prevent a disorderly ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 29 March.

“Businesses have been watching in horror as politicians have focused on factional disputes rather than practical steps that business needs to move forward. The lack of progress in Westminster means that the risk of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is rising. Businesses of all sizes are reaching the point of no return, with many now putting in place contingency plans that are a significant drain of time and money.

“Firms are pausing or diverting investment that should be boosting productivity, innovation, jobs and pay into stockpiling goods or materials, diverting cross border trade and moving offices, factories and therefore jobs and tax revenues out of the UK.  While many companies are actively preparing for a ‘no deal’ scenario, there are also hundreds of thousands who have yet to start – and cannot be expected to be ready in such a short space of time. All this activity stems from the growing risk of leaving the EU on 29 March without a deal.

“With just 100 days to go, the suggestion that ‘no-deal’ can be ‘managed’ is not a credible proposition. Businesses would face massive new customs costs and tariffs. Disruption at ports could destroy carefully built supply chains. From broadcasters, to insurance brokers, to our financial services – the UK’s world-leading services sector will be needlessly disadvantaged, and many professional qualifications will be unrecognised across the EU. UK and EU nationals working abroad will be left in deep uncertainty about their future.

“As a result of the lack of progress, the Government is understandably now in a place where it must step up no-deal planning, but it is clear there is simply not enough time to prevent severe dislocation and disruption in just 100 days.  This is not where we should be.  The responsibility to find a way forward now rests directly with 650 MPs in Parliament.

“Nobody wants to prolong the uncertainty, but everyone must remember that businesses and communities need time to adapt to future changes. As the UK’s leading business groups, we are asking MPs from all parties to return to their constituencies over Christmas and talk to their local business communities. We hope that they will listen and remember that when they return to Parliament, the future course of our economy will be in their hands.”

Dr Adam Marshall, Director General, British Chambers of Commerce

Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General, Confederation of British Industry

Stephen Phipson CBE, Chief Executive, EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation

Mike Cherry OBE, National Chairman, Federation of Small Businesses

Stephen Martin, Director General, Institute of Directors


Outlook weakens for business investment

Uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU is one factors that has weakened the outlook for business investment, says the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

A decline of -0.6% for business investment in 2018 is expected to be followed next year with growth of just 0.1%.  The figures coincide with the repeated delays and lack of clarity on Brexit and future trading arrangements.  Many firms have hit pause on investment plans.

The BCC forecast assumes that the UK will reach an agreement in negotiations with the EU, and avoid a cliff edge in the short term. Longer-term prospects are still uncertain, but this forecast assumes that a trade deal is reached, at least at outline level. Other scenarios would lead to revisions in the next forecast.

Adam Marshall, Director- General, BCC

UK GDP growth is expected to slow to just 0.1% in the final quarter of 2018. The BCC’s forecast for 2019 GDP growth remains at 1.3% but has downgraded its 2020 GDP forecast to 1.5% (from 1.6%).  The slide in the value of the pound together with weaker confidence levels is expected to stifle the contribution of net trade and consumer spending to UK GDP growth. Inflation is now expected to be higher over the forecast period as the weakness in sterling pushes up the cost of imports.

BCC is urging Westminster to come together to provide clarity on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and avoid a disorderly Brexit.

Suren Thiru, Head of Economics at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said:

“The contribution of business investment to UK GDP growth is expected to be more downbeat than we previously projected as the increased uncertainty over Brexit weakens business confidence and stifles investment activity.  Consumer spending is expected to be more limited as the weaker pound drives higher imported inflation over the near term, stifling real wage growth. A weakening currency is also expected to hinder, rather than help the UK’s net trade position by increasing imported input costs while a slowing global economy will limit export demand.”

Key findings in the forecast:

  • 2018 GDP growth forecast marginally upgraded from 1.1% to 1.2%. UK GDP growth is expected to slow to 0.1% in Q4 2018 (down from 0.6% in the previous quarter). 2019 GDP stays at 1.3%, while 2020 is downgraded, from 1.6% to 1.5%
  • Business investment to contract in 2018 by 0.6% (down from 1.0%), before growing by just 0.1% in 2019, and 1.2% in 2020
  • Household consumption to grow at 1.5% in 2018, 1.2% in 2019 and 1.5% in 2020, compared to 1% in 2018, 1.3% in 2019, and 1.7% in the previous forecast.
  • Average earnings growth to outstrip inflation but by less than the previous forecast, with growth of 2.6%, 2.7%, and 2.9%, compared with CPI inflation of 2.5%, 2.4%, and 2.2%
  • BCC forecasts export growth of 1.4% in 2018, 2.3% in 2019, and 2.2% in 2020, down 1.7%, 2.7% and 2.9% respectively in our previous forecast
  • We anticipate interest rates rising to 1.25% by the end of the forecast period, with rate rises expected in Q4 2019 and Q4 2020

Brexit declaration: BCC Reaction

Commenting on today’s (22 Nov) announcement that the UK government and EU Commission have agreed a Political Declaration, Dr Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said:

“While we welcome the fact that more flesh has been put on the bones of the proposed future UK-EU relationship, the reality is that the clarity and precision businesses need to plan for the long term can only be delivered when the details are hammered out and fully agreed. There are still big questions to answer – including whether businesses will be able to conduct trade between the UK and the EU without significant new barriers or costs.

“For business, this is just the end of the beginning of the Brexit process. Our trading firms will be paying close attention to what happens next, particularly as the proposals are debated in Parliament over the days ahead. Businesses remain deeply concerned about the potential for a political stand-off that leads to a messy and disorderly exit from the EU next March.

“We have raised a number of important questions with the Government on behalf of business communities across the UK, and their responses will inform our continuing assessment of the proposed agreement and its implications for business, investment and the wider economy – as captured in our practical Business Brexit Risk Register.”

Budget – Detailed Reactions & Measures Outlined

For detailed information on various aspects of the 2018 Budget, see the links below.

  • Breakdown of measures announced, categorised into subjects – click here
  • British Chambers of Commerce comments on various measures – click here
  • Economic summary of key points and OBR forecast – click here

West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce initial reaction is below.

“We know that a significant period of change lies ahead; that’s why the Chamber network this year, in its Budget submission, called for radical measures to enable business to meet the upcoming challenges facing the UK economy. Measures to boost investment, competitiveness and productivity are needed to embolden the UK economy ahead of and throughout the upcoming period surrounding Brexit.

“We welcome measures such as increasing the annual investment allowance, the package to stimulate high streets, including business rate relief, and encouraging SMEs to take on apprentices.  Conversely, economic growth forecasts remain disturbingly weak, so this is a concern.  It can also be argued that the statement lacked the bigger picture measures needed to drive the economy through Brexit, but some would say that’s an unreasonable criticism given the constraints in this area.

“Given our recent reports on local housing needs and employment land, we welcome the additional money for the Housing Infrastructure Fund, aswell as extending the cancellation of stamp duty for first-time buyers.  On the downside, increasing the National Minimum Wage by almost 5% puts pressure on many employers because of the need to maintain differentials within the workforce.  This is at a time when competition, price pressures and general constraints within the business community are quite testing.

“One policy decision we are still awaiting is on devolution.  There is reference in the red book to extending the Transforming Cities Fund but, until our region gets progress on a devolution settlement, we remain disadvantaged.  The Government needs to give our region the policy-making tools and powers it needs to fully contribute to the economy and decision-making.  We therefore look forward to a renewed Northern Powerhouse strategy next year.

“We will scrutinise the red book further to give a more detailed assessment to our members and the likely impact on the business community and economic growth prospects.”

Survey says Brexit affecting international trade

A survey by British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), in partnership with DHL Express UK, has today (18 Oct 2018) revealed that almost half – 49% – of businesses have uncertainty over Brexit front of mind when deciding whether to trade internationally, highlighting the economic cost of the persistent lack of political clarity. A similar number (48%) of firms are concerned by the related issue of exchange rate volatility, which can increase the cost of raw materials and potentially make UK exports less competitive. Exchange rate volatility is a much greater concern for manufacturers (61%) and B2C firms (64%) than B2B businesses (36%).

  • Half of businesses surveyed say that Brexit is making it difficult to decide whether to import or export, hampering British trade
  • Volatility of sterling is also causing concern
  • Chambers have long called for clarity for business on the practical questions over Brexit

As EU leaders gather in Brussels, 500 exporters, trade professionals and business leaders have gathered at the BCC International Trade Summit to discuss issues and trends at the forefront of international trade, and to give innovative firms the tools they need to enter new markets. The research also shows that while there are many concerns for businesses when deciding whether to trade internationally, those that do trade internationally are more likely to be innovative within their business – 65% of those that are internationally active have launched a new product or service in the last 12 months, compared to just 41% of firms who are UK-focused.

Government must do more to boost business confidence at the Autumn Budget and incentivise export and import growth. This, coupled with clear progress in negotiations, will encourage firms to take risks and break into new markets, boosting innovation and productivity in the UK economy.

Commenting on the results, Dr Adam Marshall, BCC Director General, said: “Firms have been dealing with uncertainty over the future relationship with the EU since the referendum two years ago. However, this survey shows that as we get closer to the crunch, the lack of precision is starting to have a material impact on their decision-making. While business faces uncertain times, our research shows that those trading internationally are more innovative and dynamic compared to those who just focus their attention on the UK market. It is vital that clear progress is made in negotiations – to give firms confidence and empower them to take risks and try to break into new markets, creating the Global Britain this government so often talks about.”

Shannon Diett, VP of Marketing, DHL Express UK, added: “The uncertainty expressed by British businesses taking part in this survey mirrors the increasing concern we are hearing from our customers, both of which further highlight the criticality now surrounding the Brexit negotiations. It is important to note however, that increasing the number of markets a business trades with helps to reduce risk and increase the opportunities for growth.”

Budget Submission: Measures to counter Brexit headwinds

Lobbying key decision makers

The British Chambers of Commerce has met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer ahead of the upcoming Autumn Budget.

BCC has proposed action in seven key areas:
• An exceptional ‘Brexit Investment Incentive’ – with the Annual Investment Allowance boosted to £1m to ‘crowd in’ both domestic and international investment – and stem the weakening in business investment in the face of Brexit uncertainty.

• Introduce a Business Rates Investment Incentive – ease the drag effect of this uniquely iniquitous business tax on investment by providing a 12-month delay before rates are increased when an existing property is expanded or improved and also before rates apply to a new build property.

• A commitment to no new taxes or costs on businesses for the remainder of this parliament – giving businesses the headroom to adjust to Brexit and to invest, recruit and grow.

• Deliver real UK-wide reform to the apprenticeship levy and drop SME co-funding for apprenticeships in England – to ensure that the training system works for everyone and eases the UK’s chronic skills shortage.

• Delay the roll-out of Making Tax Digital for all businesses by one year – to provide HMRC and businesses with the headroom to prepare for this major change to the way tax is collected.

• Abandon the uprating of business rates for the next two financial years for all businesses on the high street in town and city centres – to ease the financial burden on struggling businesses as they go through significant structural changes.

• Provide the funding needed to achieve full mobile coverage along transport corridors (road and rail) – a crucial step to improving digital connectivity and productivity for businesses that need to communicate with new and existing customers, suppliers and employees.

If these targeted, affordable measures are delivered it would drive greater investment in people, property, infrastructure and capital, lifting both UK growth and productivity.

A BCC spokesperson said: “The ‘business as usual’ approach which has characterised recent fiscal events is no longer sufficient in the face of a sluggish economy and continued Brexit uncertainty. Therefore, we believe that the focus of the Autumn Budget 2018 must be on radical measures to bolster business investment, competitiveness and productivity in the face of Brexit headwinds – without which business communities across the UK will be ill-equipped to overcome the significant period of change that lies ahead.”

BCC response to PM’s Brexit Statement

The British Chambers of Commerce has responded to the Prime Minister’s statement today (Friday 21 Sep 2018) on the negotiations with the EU on Brexit.  The BCC response is below.

“While the Prime Minister’s determination to reach a deal is appreciated, businesses tell us over and over that the time for posturing from both sides is over.  Businesses across the UK want the negotiators to knuckle down and deliver tangible results that enable them to plan for the future. Firms need clarity, precision, and answers to their real-word, practical questions – and they need them fast. There is no time to lose. People’s livelihoods, major investments in our towns and cities and business confidence are at stake.”

On the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a negotiated outcome:

“Many firms are hugely worried about a messy and disorderly outcome, and the potential impact on their ability to trade and grow. Others could be caught flat-footed. Both sides must make every effort to avoid this scenario.”

On EU citizens working in UK businesses:

“Businesses feel a strong sense of responsibility to their EU employees. We welcome the Prime Minister’s clear commitment to guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK, regardless of the outcome of negotiations. This must be translated into clear, precise guidance as soon as possible to give people the security they need.”

Theresa May has called on the EU to show more respect in the negotiations, and for it to present a credible alternative to her Chequers Plan.


BCC: Growth expectations downgraded

The Beating Heart of the Economy

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has downgraded its growth expectations for the UK economy, forecasting GDP growth for 2018 at just 1.1% (down from 1.3%). The BCC has also downgraded its GDP growth forecast for 2019 from 1.4% to 1.3%. Our latest forecast implies that by 2020 the UK economy will have experienced its second weakest decade of average annual GDP growth on record.

The downgrades to our forecast for GDP growth in 2018 and 2019 have been largely driven by a weaker outlook for trade and investment. Exporters face more subdued growth given continued Brexit uncertainty and the expected slower growth in key markets. As a consequence, net trade is expected to make a negative contribution to GDP growth over the forecast period.

The outlook for investment is more subdued than in our previous forecast with persistent economic and political uncertainty expected to increasingly weigh on investment intentions. Business investment growth is expected to be weaker across the forecast horizon than in our Q2 forecast. The high upfront cost of doing business in the UK and the ongoing uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU are expected to continue to stifle business investment.

The labour market is expected to continue to be a source of strength for the economy, with the unemployment rate forecasted to remain close to its record low. However, in such a tight labour market, businesses will continue to face significant skills gaps, undermining their potential to grow. At the same time, workers are unlikely to experience meaningful real wage growth as the gap between pay and price growth is forecast to remain negligible.

If realised, the leading business organisation’s latest forecast suggests that the UK economy remains lethargic. Brexit uncertainty and the on-going failure to fix domestic fundamentals – stronger labour supply, digital and physical connectivity, and more – are hurting the UK’s growth prospects. To bolster stronger growth, the government must provide precision on the nature of any future relationship with the EU and answer the practical questions that firms have – a ‘messy’, disorderly Brexit will only add to the uncertainty that already exists. The BCC has outlined and is assessing the key questions that businesses need clarity on in order to take decisions, invest and plan for the future.

Alongside the forecast, the BCC warns the Prime Minister and Chancellor that the government’s upcoming Autumn Budget cannot be a ’business as usual’ affair. Ministers must go all-out to incentivise and kickstart business investment at a crucial turning point for the UK.

Key points in the forecast:

  • UK GDP growth forecast for 2018 is downgraded from 1.3% to 1.1%, and from 1.4% to 1.3% for 2019, before rising to 1.6% in 2020 (unchanged)
  • Growth in household consumption for 2018 is expected to slow to 1.0%, before rising to 1.3% in 2019 and 1.7% in 2020, largely unchanged from the previous forecast
  • Average earnings growth will slightly outstrip inflation over the forecast period, with growth of 2.6%, 2.8%, and 3.0%, compared with inflation of 2.5%, 2.3%, and 1.8%
  • BCC forecasts export growth of 1.7% in 2018 – down from 2.8% in the previous forecast – this is due to revisions of previous data. We expect a negative contribution from trade over the forecast period
  • Total investment growth of 1.4% in 2018 (down from 1.8% in the previous forecast) with growth of 1.4% in 2019 and 1.5% in 2020
  • Business investment is expected to remain weak, with growth of 1.0% in 2018, 1.2% in 2019, and 1.4% in 2020
  • We now anticipate interest rates rising to 1.25% by the end of the forecast period, with rate rises expected in Q1 2019 and Q2 2020.


Sterling volatility is major exporter concern

A national Chamber survey of 2,600 exporters has found that confidence in future operations remains strong, but external economic and political factors are having an impact.

The results show 60% of exporting manufacturers were more concerned about exchange rates in the second quarter of the year than previously. There was also increased concern among 43% of service exporters, highlighting the broad impact of the weakness of the pound.

The findings indicate that price pressures eased slightly on exporters during the second quarter, but manufacturers under pressure to raise prices say raw material costs are the main factor (81%). Service firms say raw material costs (39%) and other overheads (51%) are leading on cost pressures.  An escalating labour shortage is seriously affecting exporters, with 69% of recruiting manufacturers struggling to find staff.

Many exporters are maintaining competitiveness in foreign markets with healthy order books, but sterling’s weakness is increasing the cost of raw materials from abroad.

Key findings

  • 39% of exporting manufacturers saw orders increase in the last three months; for services, the figure was 30%
  • 35% of exporting manufacturers and 32% of exporting service firms expect the price of their goods/services to increase
  • For those manufacturing exporters under pressure to increase prices, 81% report the cost of raw materials as the leading source of pressure
  • 77% of exporting manufacturers and 67% of services firms attempted to recruit in the last three months, however, of those, 69% and 60% respectively reported difficulties finding the right staff.

Dr Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said:

“It’s been a summer of trade tensions and endless Brexit bickering, and exporters are particularly exposed to the consequences of that turmoil. Companies will always find a way to trade with each other, but messy negotiations and the threat of higher tariffs have implications, and can hit confidence and firms’ bottom lines. The UK government can’t control currency or the actions of trading partners, but it can take steps to mitigate the level of uncertainty at home.”

Ian Wilson, CEO DHL Express UK and Ireland, said:

“The resilience of UK exporters is highlighted with this quarter’s Trade Confidence Index. Despite a slight decline, the index remains up year-on-year and it is encouraging to see it stands at the fifth highest level on record. This strong performance also reflects what I hear from our customers and, at DHL Express, we continue to support an abundance of energetic, internationally-focussed UK entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the world.”