Business stalled as more jobs go
Northern Ireland business activity has remained largely stagnant over the last month, but experts have said economic pressure means firms are continuing to cut jobs.
The bleak survey findings shows that new work for companies is falling, but at a slower rate, and there are also concerns over firms facing ever rising costs, with higher fuel costs being cited as a particular problem.
The details emerged in the March data from the latest Ulster Bank Northern Ireland Purchasing Managers' Indexes (PMI).
Ulster Bank chief economist in Northern Ireland Richard Ramsey said: "Over the 40-month period since November 2007, the PMI has signalled a contraction in private sector output each month bar one. Clearly, private sector activity cannot keep falling indefinitely and we are either at or very close to the bottom. It should also be noted that not all firms and sectors have been contracting since late 2007.
"Indeed, the latest survey for March signals that the period of contraction has, at least for now, effectively come to an end. However, Northern Ireland firms continue to reduce their workforce numbers, as they have done each month since March 2008.
"Northern Ireland remains the only UK region not reporting a rise in staffing levels."
The report signalled that the private sector ended the first quarter with a near-stagnation of overall output levels, which was indicated by a rise in the seasonally adjusted Business Activity Index from 47.6 to 49.8 in March.
Mr Ramsey said: "At a sector level, the manufacturing industry continues to be the best performer. Local manufacturing firms reported an increase in output and new orders in March, with the latter representing the best reading since April last year. Furthermore, manufacturing employment has stabilised since last October.
"This compares with rapid employment growth within the UK as a whole. Meanwhile, the sharp rates of contraction in output and orders within the services sector have eased significantly during the last two months.
"The construction industry continues to experience the most challenging conditions within all the sectors. Job losses within the construction sector accelerated in March and the squeeze on profit margins intensified further. Inflationary pressures remain a concern across all sectors but are most acute within the retail and manufacturing sectors."