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East of Engalnd: CBI chief says uncertainty is weighing on SME investment plans

06:00 04 February 2013

Richard Tunnicliffe, East of England regional director

Richard Tunnicliffe, East of England regional director

SMALL and medium-sized manufacturers saw domestic and export orders continue to fall in the three months to January, while production also contracted for the third consecutive quarter, according to a new survey.

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However, both domestic orders and output are expected to increase in the coming three months, the CBI’s latest quarterly SME Trends Survey shows.

New orders declined slightly (minus 5%), for the second quarter running, driven by falls in both domestic orders (minus 6%) and export orders (minus 9%), although both declined at a slower pace than the previous quarter (minus11% and 21% respectively.

However, SMEs expect total new orders to grow over the next three months (plus 9%), likely to be driven by anticipated growth in domestic orders (plus 10%), although, in contrast, export demand is expected to be broadly flat (minus 2%).

In line with falling demand this quarter, output continued to fall (minus 8%), failing to meet expectations of modest growth (plus 5%). However, once again, production is expected to increase next quarter (plus 7%).

With less activity over the last three months, numbers employed in the sector fell slightly (minus 4%), for the first time in three years, but SMEs anticipate an increase in headcount in the next quarter (plus11%).

Richard Tunnicliffe, CBI director in the East of England, said: “Activity has continued to contract this quarter, with falling production disappointing growth expectations.

“Nonetheless, better news on the domestic front is expected, with output and domestic orders set to rise modestly. But there is little sign of improvement in export prospects, and uncertainty over demand continues to weigh on investment plans.”

SMEs remain concerned about export prospects for the year ahead with optimism falling significantly (minus 22%), at the fastest pace since April 2009 (miinus 32%).

However, sentiment overall deteriorated at a slower pace: a balance of minus 6% said they were less optimistic regarding the business situation in the three months to January, with the rate of decline easing compared with the previous two quarters (July minus13%, October minus12%).

Furthermore, firms’ plant and machinery investment intentions for the year ahead turned positive (plus 4%) for the first time since April 2012 (plus 13%). However, more firms believed that uncertainty over demand would limit capital spending, cited by 64%, the highest since April 2009 (70%).

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