Optimism wanes for UK SME manufacturers as capacity pressures bite

Optimism among Britain’s SME manufacturers has dropped for the first time in over a year, according to the latest CBI SME Trends Survey.


The survey of 374 SME manufacturers reported another firm rise in new orders driven by export and domestic demand. Furthermore, while firms still expect to cut back on investment in buildings and plant & machinery, investment intentions for the year ahead haven’t deteriorated materially further and remain above their long-run averages. Growth in headcount and hiring intentions for the coming quarter also remain robust.

According the report, output growth slowed over the past quarter, although manufacturers expect a modest pick-up in the next three months. There are also signs that capacity pressures are having a negative impact, with the proportion of firms working below capacity falling to its lowest since April 1989. In addition, the number of firms citing labour shortages as a limiting factor on investment rose to its highest since October 1988.

Pricing pressures are also gaining traction, with average cost growth still elevated. However, growth in domestic and export output prices slowed over the past three months, indicating that manufacturers’ margins are coming under pressure. Costs growth is set to ease a little in the coming quarter, though still run ahead of output price inflation.

“The latest survey suggests mixed fortunes for our smaller manufacturers,” said Alpesh Paleja, CBI principal economist. “While growth in new orders has held up and headcount has risen strongly, output growth has lost some steam over the last quarter. Coupled with ongoing pressure from labour shortages, it’s understandable that optimism among manufacturers has fallen.

“The chancellor should use the Budget to fire up our factories by reforming business rates, and setting out a clear plan to bring the UK’s Industrial Strategy to life.”

Commenting on the survey, Ed Thorne, UK managing director of data analytics company Dun & Bradstreet said: “Businesses of all sizes are impacted by macroeconomic trends, and small and medium-sized enterprises can be particularly vulnerable. Ever since the Brexit vote, fluctuations in the value of the pound and uncertainty over the future of trade relations has affected the business landscape. It’s unsurprising that as pressure rises on manufacturers’ margins, optimism is falling and there is some reticence over investment plans.

“As the Brexit negotiations continue, small and medium-sized manufacturers can prepare by monitoring developments and assessing the impact on their trading partners and business operations. Until there is more clarity, it’s key for businesses to have full visibility of their customer and supplier relationships so they are in the best position to protect their business. Third party data and analytics can be used to credit check their associates, identify high and low risk partners and extend credit accordingly. In this uncertain environment, protecting cash flow could make all the difference to the future success of small and medium-sized manufacturing businesses.”

CBI SME Trends Survey in numbers:

13 per cent of small & medium-sized (SME) manufacturers said they were more optimistic, while 19 per cent said they were less optimistic, giving a balance of -6 per cent

25 per cent said their volume of output was up, and 17 per cent said it was down, giving a balance of +8 per cent. Companies expect output to rise at a somewhat quicker pace over the next quarter (+14 per cent)

35 per cent said their domestic orders were up, while 22 per cent said they were down, giving a balance of +13 per cent. Firms expect weaker domestic orders growth over the next quarter (+5 per cent)

30 per cent said export orders rose over the past three months, 11 per cent said they fell, leaving a balance of +18 per cent, with firms anticipating that export orders growth will edge higher over the next three months (+23 per cent)

Average unit costs grew at a robust pace (+29 per cent), with the expectation that growth will soften slightly over the next three months (+22 per cent)

Domestic prices grew at a broadly steady rate (+18 per cent) and growth is set to be similar next quarter (+16 per cent)

Export price growth slowed over the last quarter (+14 per cent), with similar inflation expected over the next three months (+17 per cent)

37 per cent of SME manufacturers are employing more people than three months ago, and 13 per cent less – leaving a balance of +25 per cent and employment growth is expected to remain robust over the next quarter (+23 per cent)

The proportion of firms working below capacity (44 per cent) was at its lowest since April 1989 (41 per cent)

Investment is expected to be cut back for both plant & machinery (-5 per cent) and buildings (-8 per cent). Both balances remain above their long-run averages (-7 per cent and -17 per cent respectively).