Scottish Economy continues to be resilient but firms are becoming cautious in an uncertain political environment

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19 October 2018

Neil Amner, Commercial specialist and Director at Anderson Strathern, comments on the Q3 2018 Scottish Chambers of Commerce Quarterly Economic Indicator Report.

The report illustrates a broadly positive Scottish economy, but slowing investment across a range of sectors. A challenging set of results for the manufacturing sector, suggest that the need for certainty on the UK’s Exit for the European Union is paramount.

Driven by rising costs of raw materials, the manufacturing sector has posted its first negative result for optimism / business confidence since 2016, despite a reasonably strong set of financial results. Expectations in the sector for future revenue and investment both sit substantially lower than for the previous quarter.

The survey has also observed slowing investment trends generally throughout the third quarter, with all sectors bar retail experiencing a decline in investment relative to the second quarter.

The survey’s results also show that external pressure continues to act as a challenge for some key sectors, with construction and manufacturing particularly impacted by the rising cost of raw materials. 63% of manufacturing firms indicated that rising raw material prices were acting as a growing cost pressure.

Key Findings / Overall National Results

• Generally, robust financial results across sectors, but declining investment and expectations for the future.
• 21% of firms across the sample reported declining optimism, relative to 15% last quarter. This still suggests positive business confidence overall.
• 43% of firms reporting increased overall revenue, with only 17% reporting a decrease.
• 16% of firms reported declining business investment in this quarter, compared to 11% in Q2.
• On a sectoral basis: Construction, Business Services, Manufacturing and Tourism all report declining investment levels this quarter.
• Investment expectations for the future are slowing, with 27% of firms looking to increase investment this quarter, compared to 32% in Q2.
• On a sectoral basis: Investment expectations for the next quarter sit below average for Construction, Manufacturing, and Retail.

Commenting on the results, Neil Amner of Anderson Strathern and Chair of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce Economic Advisory Group, said:

“Our survey results for the third quarter of 2018 suggest that the Scottish economy continues to be resilient, but firms are becoming cautious as uncertainty grows around the future trading environment with the European Union. Investment in Q3 and future expectations of investment are beginning to show signs of slowing across many of the analysed sectors.

“Although optimism remains relatively strong throughout the national sample, levels of business confidence have also softened relative to the second quarter. It’s particularly concerning to see the manufacturing sector report a negative score for optimism. This is the first negative score reported since the third quarter of 2016, suggesting that the combination of rising material costs and continued uncertainty around future trading conditions are beginning to affect the confidence of businesses in this sector.”

Professor Graeme Roy, Director at the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute said:

"This survey is further clear evidence of the importance of securing a smooth Brexit transition to protect Scotland’s economy. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to leave the EU, it is essential that we have an orderly transition. The analysis undertaken by the Chambers of Commerce shows that it is vital that a deal is reached to enable firms to prepare and develop contingency plans. Crashing out of the EU in March next year threatens to severely impact on businesses right across the Scottish economy."

On the UK’s Exit from the European Union, Neil Amner, said:

“A recent Chamber of Commerce survey illustrated that 62% of firms across the UK have not conducted a Brexit related risk assessment. This figure is higher in Scotland, at 67% of surveyed firms. Furthermore, 21% of firms across the UK intend to cut investment levels if a ‘no-deal’ scenario comes to pass. It’s difficult for firms, especially smaller businesses, to prepare without clarity on future arrangements. It is critical that the UK Government steps up to the plate to provide the certainty that business needs. Business communities need to see the UK Government working constructively with the whole of the UK and our EU partners to deliver certainty for business.”

On Investment, Neil Amner, continued:

“On investment, only the retail sector has observed a substantive increase in overall investment this quarter. Construction stands out as one sector which has seen substantive declines in investment figures, with the percentage balance figure for overall investment flat, and investment in capital now reported as negative for the first time since the first quarter of 2016. Based on reported investment expectations, the slowing investment levels observed this quarter appear on course to be replicated once more in the last quarter of the year. Pragmatic future arrangements with the EU, particularly a status quo transition period, must be confirmed in order to create a stable operating environment for future business investment.

“Furthermore, The Scottish Government must continue to do their part to encourage business investment at home. Policy in key devolved areas such as skills and non-domestic rates must provide certainty and focus on encouraging long term investment from businesses into their operations. A stable domestic environment will aid significantly in ensuring that investment levels persist throughout the Brexit negotiations.”

On Recruitment Challenges, Neil Amner, said:

“Recruitment difficulties continue to be a persistent business issue across all sectors. Almost 80% of businesses in tourism that attempted to recruit, found it a challenge to source workers, in part reflecting the increased tourism demand this quarter, and perhaps also reflecting the reducing number of incoming migrants from the EU seeking work in the UK.”