Business activity grows at fastest pace for 18 months
Business activity in Northern Ireland has increased at the fastest pace for a year-and-a-half, according to new figures.
The Ulster Bank Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) found private sector firms finished the first quarter of 2016 on a high note with accelerated output and new orders.
It also reported a solid increase in employment with companies hiring extra staff because of bigger workloads and projected increases in demand, the survey said.
Richard Ramsey, chief economist Northern Ireland at Ulster Bank, said: "March marked the end of the first quarter of 2016 with Northern Ireland's private sector continuing to report a very strong start to the year. Indeed, last month firms saw the rate of growth in business activity and new orders accelerate to an 18-month high, with export orders expanding at their fastest rate in 20 months.
"The marked depreciation in sterling over the last four months, linked to uncertainty with the outcome from the forthcoming EU referendum, has provided a significant and unexpected tailwind for local exporters and retailers sensitive to cross-border footfall.
"Given Northern Ireland's reliance on the Republic of Ireland economy, the combination of strong growth in the Irish Republic coupled with a competitive sterling/euro exchange rate have presented many firms with very favourable conditions. It is noted that local firms also increased their staffing levels in March for the 14th month in a row."
The PMI also confirmed that output and employment growth was better in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK during March, and for the first quarter as a whole.
Services and retail sectors were the star performers.
Although construction firms remain in expansion mode, the rate of growth in output, orders and employment has eased, the survey said.
Manufacturing has continued to struggle and was the only sector to report job losses for the seventh consecutive month.
Mr Ramsey said: "It is worth remembering that the local economy is playing catch-up with its UK counterparts following a sustained period of under-performance.
"The encouraging headline performance conceals contrasting fortunes at a sector level.
"It should be noted that the agricultural industry is experiencing the most challenging conditions of all sectors, but it is not covered within any of the PMI surveys."