Northern Ireland records sharpest fall in business activity since 2012
Business conditions saw a marked deterioration during April amid the continued uncertainty over Brexit, the latest snapshot of the Northern Ireland economy has suggested.
Ulster Bank's monthly Purchasing Manager's Index (PMI) suggested that export orders and jobs fell at the fastest rate in six-and-half years during April, while retail sales were at their weakest in almost seven years. This represents the sharpest fall in business activity since the end of 2012, signalling that Northern Ireland's private sector contracted more sharply in April.
The survey is based on responses from 200 private sector companies across Northern Ireland's manufacturing, services, retail and construction industries. The responses suggested that manufacturing was the only sector of the economy to record any growth since March.
Ulster Bank's chief economist Richard Ramsey said: "April saw an improvement in business conditions across most of the UK regions.
"However, Northern Ireland was a notable exception to this trend."
He said that rather than improving, the pace of contraction across the indicators accelerated, with private sector output, orders and employment posting the fastest rates of decline since the final quarter of 2012. It left Northern Ireland at the bottom of the UK regional rankings.
"Brexit and the lack of a Stormont Executive continue to be cited as factors impacting negatively on local business," he said. "Looking ahead, there is no quick-fix for these issues."
The economist said the fall in export orders was a reflection of weakness in other markets, notably the Republic.
Mr Ramsey said the knock-on impact is being seen in the workplace: "All sectors, bar construction, shed staff in April. Services firms reported their steepest declines in headcount since August 2012, while manufacturing firms reduced their staffing levels at their fastest pace in six years.
"Job losses amongst retailers remained modest in April but with confidence in this sector slumping to a series low, this may change in coming months.
"Overall, aspects of Northern Ireland's private sector growth were flattered by the levels of stockpiling taking place in the run up to the anticipated Brexit date. Similarly, as stockpiling has eased off, this is perhaps having the opposite effect.
"April's PMI data is particularly downbeat relative to recent years but, outside of retail, it would be premature to read too much into it at this stage."