The economic picture brightened somewhat in Northern Ireland last month after a period of decline, new figures suggest.
Economic activity increased slightly in March after three successive months of contraction, according to a survey by Ulster Bank.
The bank's PMI (purchasing managers' index), which provides regular benchmarked snapshots of output in the region, also recorded a marginal rise in new business orders and firms taking on extra staff. Muted cost inflation was registered after there was no change in input prices, while output prices continued to fall.
Richard Ramsey, Ulster Bank's chief economist in Northern Ireland, said: "According to the Ulster Bank PMI survey, Northern Ireland's private sector has experienced a rapid recovery and a significant slowdown in less than two years. Whilst a moderation in growth was always anticipated, the speed and scale of the slowdown since the fourth quarter of last year was perhaps faster and more marked than had been expected."
Mr Ramsey said the PMI data showed that local firms had experienced a decrease in business activity across the whole first quarter of 2015.
"This represented the first quarterly decline since Q2 2013," he said.
"On a more positive note, the March report signalled the first monthly increase in business activity, albeit marginal, since November 2014. Whilst this may not represent a notable rebound in activity it suggests that private sector demand is at least stabilising.
"Despite the recent slowdown, local firms have still managed to increase their staffing levels and reported an expansion in their order books in each of the last seven quarters. It should be noted, however, that the rate of growth in new orders remains very weak. Furthermore, the strength of sterling vis-a-vis the euro is cited by survey respondents as an issue affecting demand. Indeed, export orders recorded their second quarterly decline in Q1 2015. The exchange rate is likely to remain an issue affecting export price competitiveness for the foreseeable future.
"Northern Ireland's private sector recovery continues to lag significantly behind that of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland were the only two regions within the UK to report a decrease in business activity in Q1 2015. Meanwhile the same two regions recorded the weakest rates of employment growth over the same period."