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Gloomy outlook for Northern Ireland retail sector as it continues to suffer: survey

Richard Ramsey

Business activity in Northern Ireland continued to fall in October as Brexit uncertainty continued, according to a key survey today.

Retail was hardest hit during a month of falling activity, new orders and employment for the economy as a whole - with building firms also having a tough time.

And Northern Ireland was the only UK region where business expects output to be even lower in a year's time, according to the Ulster Bank purchasing managers' index.

However, manufacturing production had expanded for the first time in six months, and the pace of decline in other sectors had eased on September.

And firms were less pessimistic than they had been in September, although last month's Brexit deal had done nothing to dispel uncertainty over Brexit, according to Ulster Bank.

Its chief economist Richard Ramsey said: "Northern Ireland's private sector has started the fourth quarter the way it ended the third, with business conditions deteriorating."

And despite a let-up in the pace of decline, he said "the picture painted by local businesses remains a rather gloomy one".

"Output, exports and employment have now been falling for eight, nine and 10 months respectively. Northern Ireland remains rooted to the bottom of the regional league table for output and orders," he said.

"Furthermore, local firms continue to see their input costs rise at faster rates than anywhere else in the UK."

And he said that with Brexit still unresolved, and a general election next month, "political uncertainty and business uncertainty will loom large in 2020".

However, Mr Ramsey said the October PMI highlighted "modest" improvement for manufacturing and services, adding: "Services firms increased headcount, albeit marginally, for the first time in 10 months, with businesses more optimistic about output growth in a year's time."

But he warned the improvement for manufacturing followed its weakest quarter in 10-and-a-half years.

"Similarly, the improvements cited by service sector firms follow multi-year lows. It remains to be seen whether these latest improvements are sustained."

And he said the retail sector findings reflected the problems shown in other indicators, such as car sales - which were down 17% on the year before in October. Retail reported the fastest rates of decline of all sectors for output, orders and employment.

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