07 March 2007
Strong start as costs kept under control
Britain’s manufacturers have carried on this year where they left off 2006 to post a strong first quarter, according to one of the leading barometers of the sector published by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and RSM Robson Rhodes.
Publishing its survey, EEF used the figures to stress that stronger growth can be combined with cost control, allaying some fears at the Bank of England that improved order books for manufacturers are leading them to push through price increases. The number of firms reporting price increases remains low, while separate EEF research demonstrated no evidence of increased inflation generating higher wage rises in the sector.
Key findings of the survey:
o Output and orders remain firm
o Exports continue to drive orders
o Employment prospects stable
o Investment intentions best for nine years
o Ability to raise prices limited
o Firms most confident for more than two years
EEF chief economist, Steve Radley, says: “Manufacturers are taking the effects of a strong currency in their stride and are continuing to post strong figures on the back of strong world markets, improving productivity and investment in innovation.
“However, despite enjoying healthy order books, few manufacturers are able to raise prices. This shows that manufacturing can continue to enjoy healthy growth without the need to raise interest rates to clamp down on inflationary pressures.”
Output and orders surpassed expectations in the last quarter with engineering recording the sixth consecutive quarter of positive balances. Strong world markets have supported manufacturers’ order books in recent years and this remained the case with balances on domestic and export orders unchanged from the previous quarter.
The picture was mixed in terms of output by sector although all balances remained positive. Electrical equipment was again the most positive sector whilst motor vehicles showed a marked improvement. Metal products and other transport also reported better trading conditions.
Output was positive for the third consecutive quarter across all regions with the most buoyant conditions in the South East and London and the North West. The North East and the East of England saw the biggest turnaround from the last quarter.
EEF’s survey showed the fifth quarter on the run of increased investment. The balance of companies reporting plans to increase investment is now at its highest level since 1998. Some regions did see job cuts, although overall these were limited.
Over the past three months only a small number of companies reported raising prices. Pay settlements have also remained under control with the average settlement level in the three months to end of January (the main pay bargaining month in manufacturing) at 2.9%.
Looking forward, companies reported the highest level of confidence (%) since the third quarter of 2004 indicating that momentum should be maintained during the first half of this year. Firms forecast export orders continuing to improve although there is also greater optimism for domestic order books on the back of a healthy UK economy.
Bob Hale, chairman of RSM Robson Rhodes’ National Manufacturing and Technology Group, commenting on the results says: “It is very encouraging to see the strong performance in the latter part of 2006 continue, particularly the fact that exports continued to be the main driver for increased orders, despite the strength of sterling and the limited ability to raise prices. The indications are that companies are continuing to concentrate on being leaner and fitter, emphasised by the continuing increase in investment intentions.”
EEF (Engineering Employers Federation)
RSM Robson Rhodes
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