UK Business Activity Increased Across Most Industries – Research Report

Latest NatWest Regional PMI survey data showed business activity rising almost universally across the UK in March, “supported by a general upturn in demand.”

Trends in employment remained “more mixed, with just over half of areas seeing growth in job numbers amid still-strong cost pressures.”

Positively, rates of input price inflation “generally eased, and firms remained optimistic about the outlook for the year ahead.”

The PMI Business Activity Index is reportedly “the first fact-based indicator of regional economic health published each month, tracking the monthly change in the output of goods and services across the private sector.”

A reading above 50 signals growth, and the “further above the 50 level the faster the expansion signalled.”

Business activity growth was “recorded in 11 of the 12 monitored nations and regions, led by London (index at 57.1). Close behind was Northern Ireland, which gathered considerable momentum to post its steepest rise in output for over two years (56.6).”

There were renewed expansions “in the South West (51.2), Wales (50.3) and North East (50.2). Only Yorkshire & Humber (46.9) went against the trend, recording a second straight monthly contraction.”

Inflows of new work rose “across most regions and nations in March, the only exceptions being Yorkshire & Humber and the North East where data showed modest and marginal decreases respectively.”

Leading the way was Northern Ireland, which “recorded its steepest rise in new business for just over two years. It was followed by London, with Wales in third position but some way behind.”

Input price inflation eased almost everywhere in March, “with only Northern Ireland seeing a faster rise in costs – its steepest for ten months.”

Nevertheless, rates of increase remained “above their respective historical averages in most cases, including in London which topped the rankings for the thirteenth time in the past 14 months.”

Firms in Wales reported the “slowest overall rise in costs.”

Average prices charged for goods and services “continued to rise fastest in London, in line with the trend seen in six of the past seven months.”

Wales was close behind. Rates of inflation “generally eased, however. Only Northern Ireland recorded a meaningful acceleration in output price inflation, the rate there reaching a ten-month high.”

The fastest rate of job creation in March “was recorded in Northern Ireland where it reached the quickest since August last year.”

Six other nations and regions saw staffing levels “rise during the month, although employment growth was generally only modest.”

The West Midlands meanwhile “registered the most marked drop in workforce numbers, the fastest there in over three years.”

As has been the case in each of the past four months, London was “the only area of the UK to record a rise in backlogs of work.”

Work-in-hand fell in all other regions and nations (albeit only fractionally in Scotland), in a sign of “a general lack of pressure on business capacity.”

Yorkshire & Humber recorded “the most marked fall in work-in-hand, followed closely by the East of England.”

Business expectations remained positive in “all areas in March, with confidence levels generally exceeding their long-run series averages.”

The West Midlands returned to “the top of the rankings as the degree of optimism in the region reached the strongest since the start of 2022. In the majority of cases, however, sentiment slipped from the highs seen in February.”

PMI survey coverage in Northern Ireland “includes construction and retail, as well as manufacturing and services.”

Sebastian Burnside, NatWest Chief Economist, commented:

“The picture for the UK economy has brightened since the end of last year, and the same goes for most regions and nations with business activity rising almost universally in March. London continues to lead the way in terms of business activity growth, but Northern Ireland is now close behind having gained considerable momentum so far this year. A number of other areas have returned to growth in a sign that the upturn is broadening out. Encouragingly, new orders are now rising across most regions and nations, signalling that demand has turned a corner since last year, although for the most part businesses are still seeing only modest growth in sales.”

They added:

“The picture for the labour market is less clear-cut, with employment increasing in March in a little over half of the 12 monitored regions and nations. Whilst businesses generally expect activity to rise in the coming year, with confidence levels looking solid across the board, falling backlogs of work in most areas point to low pressure on business capacity, thereby giving firms more room to manoeuvre when it comes to hiring policies.”

They also mentioned:

“Another factor is that, even after three years of steep cost increases, businesses’ input prices are still rising at a relatively fast rate due in large part to wage demands. Cost pressures did at least soften slightly almost everywhere in March, which goes some way to easing concerns over sticky inflation.”

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