Video: Retail leads the way in Northern Ireland as trading hits six-year high
Recruitment picking up as firms continue to grow
Business activity in Northern Ireland has been at its highest level in six years with the retail sector leading the way, according to a major survey.
The bellwether Ulster Bank purchasing managers' index (PMI) said new business kept growing, prompting firms to take on extra people for the third month in a row.
Costs rose, however, but thanks to improved demand for their goods, companies were able to put up their prices at the fastest rate in five years.
The survey's positive findings come as Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster hailed last week's investment conference as "a major success".
The two-day event was attended by 121 overseas companies, including 55 potential investors.
Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said Northern Ireland companies appeared to be in the middle of an Indian summer of growing activity.
"The retail, construction and manufacturing sectors all posted faster rates of growth in activity, which helped push the overall business activity index to its highest level in more than six years," he said. "The rate at which new business is coming in is also still growing, however not as strongly as it was, due to an easing of new orders in the services sector.
"In terms of employment, a significant slowdown in the rate of job creation within the services and manufacturing industries was largely offset by a pick-up in employment growth within construction and retail."
And while the construction sector had been the sickliest of all in the economy – the first sector to enter recession and the one which remains mired in downturn – Mr Ramsey (left) said the survey suggested it had "finally boarded the recovery train".
"Indeed, the September survey represents the best set of monthly figures within the quarter, with a marked acceleration in construction activity and a pick-up in new orders and employment levels.
"Furthermore, construction firms were able to raise prices for the first time in the series history."
And Mr Ramsey said Northern Ireland builders which supply the Republic and the UK would profit from improved conditions in those areas.
"House building in Great Britain is now growing at its fastest rate in almost 10 years," he said. "Meanwhile last month saw the equivalent sector in the Republic of Ireland post its fastest rate of growth in almost eight years.
"This helped bring to an end 75 months of contraction within the Republic of Ireland's wider construction industry."
But he said the picture for the economy as a whole was not unremittingly cheerful.
"Inflation pressures picked up, with the survey recording the fastest rate of growth in input cost inflation since April 2012," he said.
"Increased salary payments were quoted as one source of this inflationary pressure, and as the recovery takes hold, this trend is likely to continue."