Northern Ireland businesses off to a promising start but concern over manufacturing
Northern Ireland companies are off to a strong new year with business activity rising at its fastest rate in almost a year and a half.
It's been buoyed by growth across the services sector, while both retail and construction also saw an overall improvement, according to Ulster Bank's purchasing managers' index (PMI) for January.
But Northern Ireland's manufacturing industry suffered a drop in job numbers and a fall in new orders.
However, most sectors are creating jobs at their fastest rate in 19 months.
Growth of business activity at companies in Northern Ireland quickened in January with output rising sharply, at its fastest since September 2014.
But the growth was slower than the overall UK average, with Northern Ireland only expanding faster than Scotland and the North East of England.
Meanwhile, shops and other retailers saw a small improvement overall, after witnessing a decline in December.
And 2016 is off to a "very encouraging start", says Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey.
"According to the Ulster Bank PMI, businesses reported a marked pick-up in business activity, new orders and employment growth last month," he said.
"The rate of private expansion was the fastest rate of growth in 16 months, and matched the long-term average growth rate that pre-dated the downturn. Hiring intentions are expected to remain strong given that backlogs of work are rising at their fastest rate in 18 months.
"The only major disappointment was the decline in export orders, the first fall since August last year.
"This highlights a challenging environment for manufacturers including, until very recently, the strength of sterling against the euro."
Manufacturing also saw a reduction in headcount, recording job cuts for the fifth month running.
Northern Ireland has suffered from a raft of high-profile job losses at some of the biggest manufacturing firms here, including 860 staff being cut at Michelin in Ballymena.
And Mr Ramsey said as the global economic news looks set to remain "downbeat", it's "likely to impact on the Northern Ireland manufacturing sector during the course of 2016".
"Manufacturing orders have been flat or falling in four of the last five months. January's decline represented the sharpest fall since September 2012. In light of this, it is not surprising that manufacturing reported job losses for the fifth month in a row." he said.
Meanwhile, companies here are continuing to be squeezed when it comes to exports, with orders falling at the beginning of the year.
That's been blamed on the strength of sterling against the euro.