The private sector economy in Northern Ireland is starting to show signs that the worst of the downturn is over, new figures have indicated.
Business activity is edging toward stability, with the rate in overall decline slowing, and some sectors are starting to growth again, according to data from the Ulster Bank.
The bank's Purchasing Managers' Indexes (PMI), which provides a benchmarked snapshot of the economy, noted that May saw the service industry record its first upward turn in three and half years, with the first rise in new orders in five years.
The construction sector remains the only one still waiting a kickstart back to growth.
Job rates continued on a downward trend, however, with overall staffing levels dropping for the fourth month in succession.
The PMI report was produced for Ulster Bank by economists Markit.
Richard Ramsey, chief economist Northern Ireland, Ulster Bank, said: "According to the latest survey of Northern Ireland's firms it is not just the weather that is showing significant signs of improvement. Firms within the construction and service industries, which have borne the brunt of the domestic downturn, reported a marked improvement in business conditions in May.
"The most encouraging news was the fact that Northern Ireland's services sector, the economy's largest sector, posted its first rise in business activity in three-and-a-half years. Furthermore, service sector firms reported their first rise in new orders in over five years. This acts as a reminder that output and activity cannot keep falling indefinitely. The construction sector is now the only sector awaiting a return to growth.
"However, the construction industry reported a significant slowdown in the rate of decline in activity and new orders. Indeed, last month was the slowest rate of decline in 37 months. Meanwhile, the rate of job losses within the sector has almost stopped. The improvements within the construction and services sector appear to chime with anecdotal evidence of improving signs within the property market.
"The trends highlighted above need to continue for the recovery to gain traction and in turn encourage firms to hire more staff. It should be remembered that activity levels across all sectors remain at very low levels and recouping the output and jobs lost in the recession will be measured in years not months."