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Insights into UK manufacturing

About Lee Hopley

I am EEF's Chief Economist 

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An uncertain return - the future path of manufacturing investment?

Lee Hopley September 05, 2014 15:42

The level of business investment matters. Its contribution to the UK's growth can support the rebalancing of our economy and investment in new plant and machinery and other intangibles is a critical component of business competitiveness and productivity.

Historically the UK's investment levels have not compared especially favourably with many of our developed world competitors. And despite economists' hopes that a business investment revival would drive the UK's economic recovery forward, the path of investment growth has not been as strong as hoped. EEF together with Lombard are undertaking an annual survey - Investment Monitor - to see whether there are signs the UK's investment performance may be starting to change? For manufacturers, at least, plans to increase investment do now appear to be on the increase.  

Business conditions have been on an improving trajectory

In the past two years manufacturers have, on balance seen an improvement in both sales and profitability. A starting point for more ambitious plans to investment in new plant and machinery.

Investment levels on the up 

Almost half of manufacturers in our survey plan to increase the amount they invest in new machinery in the next two years.

BUT average increases look set to be relatively modest, with six in ten companies planning an increase pencilling in growth of less than 10% over the next two year.

HOWEVER, manufacturers investment plans are increasingly much broader than machinery - 70% will also be upping their spend on training and recruitment, 63% plan to invest more on branding and marketing and 55% will increase expenditure on research and development.

It's not a question of plant and machinery OR these areas of intangible investment, manufacturers have to invest broadly and 30% of manufacturers agree that business priorities such as innovation, training and software are becoming more important.

Confidence, capacity and company strategy

The main drivers of higher investment are the need to replace equipment as technology has moved on, signs of capacity constraints as demand has started to pick up, improving levels of confidence and the appetite for many companies to move into new areas of business. More confident manufacturers in our survey are planning to grow their investment plans more rapidly in the coming years.

Economic uncertainty continues to cast a shadow over investment plans for many companies. Indeed, affordability remains a constraint on investment plans as both internal resources and the availability of external finance (particularly for smaller companies) are somewhat limited.

Five point plan for government

Manufacturers are investing broadly and government needs to align its policy priorities with the private sector's wider investment plans. 

Manufacturing growth remains on track

Lee Hopley September 01, 2014 07:35

The EEF/BDO 2014q3 Manufacturing Outlook survey brings mainly - but not universally - positive news about trading conditions across the sector.   

  • Output and orders balances positive, but down from last quarter.
  • Domestic market remains the driver of output growth.
  • Manufacturers expecting stronger export demand, despite past disappointment.
  • Recruitment and investment intentions ease back, but remain solid.
  • Manufacturing growth forecast for 2014 revised down slightly to 3.3%. 

Manufacturers continue to report output and orders growth  

Output and orders balances slip back but remain stronger than long-term average
% balance of change in past three months
Source: EEF Business Trends Survey 

Output and orders balances have edged down over the past three months, but both remain above the long-term average over the series. Following more than a year of very strong positive balances, activity is returning to a more normal level. The UK market is providing more support for orders growth and the balance of manufacturers seeing export orders increase turned negative for the first time since early 2013. Expectations on both output and orders for the next three months are firmly positive, with balances of 22% and 20% planning for growth respectively. 

More skills please 

Recruitment and investment hold up
% balance of change in past three months
Source: EEF Business Trends Survey 

Other indicators on employment and investment point to some cautious optimism. There has been a positive balance of companies planning to raise investment levels for 17 consecutive quarters and the positive run of recruitment balances tallies with growth in workforce jobs in official statistics. 

Exchange rate 

Margins come under increased pressure
% balance of change in export prices and margins in past three months
Source: EEF Business Trends Survey 

In recent surveys there has been little move in our prices and margins series, mainly as a result of a fairly benign commodity price environment. That holds true this quarter for sales in the domestic market, but there has clearly been an increase in the downward pressure on profit margins on sales to overseas customers. This is in part a likely consequence of the steady appreciation of Sterling. 

On track for growth

Manufacturing set to grow in 2014 and 2015
% annual change in output
Source: EEF and Oxford Economics 

We have a slightly softer than expected reading in our survey indicators this quarter, but the main driver of the downward revision to our 2014 manufacturing growth forecast was the weaker than expected growth outturn for 2014q2. Quarter-on-quarter growth should continue into 2015, with annual growth rates coming in at 3.3% in 2014 and 2.1% next year. There will be sectoral variation within this with motor vehicles, rubber and plastics and non-metallic minerals posting the largest gains. 

Manufacturing Pay update

Lee Hopley August 26, 2014 12:39

The major pay rounds for most manufacturers (and their employees) are more or less behind us now. And what we can see in 2014 is a very stable picture of pay settlements which are running only very slightly ahead of the average since for most of the past couple of years.

Average pay deals running at 2.6% in the past six months

Source: EEF Pay Bulletin

There has been a great deal of discussion about the relative weakness of pay growth across the economy, even while unemployment has been falling sharply. See here and here.

The trend has been somewhat different in manufacturing with pay growth outpacing inflation and rising more or less with productivity growth over the past year. A couple of other factors are also at play which are not being felt across other sectors of the economy:

- Skills shortages - higher pay increases are necessary to attract and retain key skills

- Catch up from past pay restraint.

- Manufacturing productivity is now growing.  

What's new at the Bank?

Lee Hopley August 13, 2014 11:00

The Bank of England's quarterly Inflation Report updates its key forecasts for the economy and sheds a bit more light on its thinking about when interest rates might rise and what stats will influence the timing.

First up, forecasts.

  • The most notable today will be the large downgrade to wage growth in 2014 - now expected to come in at 1.25%, down from 2.5%.
  • GDP growth expectations this year nudged up to 3.5% from 3.4% in February, but down a bit in 2015 (3.25% v 3.5%). 
  • Unemployment rate to head below 6% by the end of this year and to hit 5.5% by the end of the forecast period.
  • Inflation set to remain at, or slightly below, 2% over the next two years.

Much ado about wages

Parking the Inflation Report for a moment, today's labour market data highlight one of the puzzling features of the UK's recovery - the unemployment rate continued to head south in the three months to June coming in at 6.4% - the lowest since April 2008. Total pay, on the other hand, also headed south - falling 0.2%. Some of this weakness reflected the timing of bonus payments, but even stripping these out wages grew by 0.6% - the slowest pace of increase since the series began in 2001.

Back to the Bank - their decisions on interest rates are tied to judgements on the degree of slack in the economy - how fast the economy can grow without leading to the build of inflationary pressures. The unemployment trends suggest that the economy is marching on, companies need more workers and slack is being eroded, but the pay data points in the other direction.

Taking account of the pay trends so far this year led to an inevitable downward revision to the likely outturn for wage growth for 2014 as a whole. The Bank's Report looked at some of the likely drivers of this in a bit more detail.

  • An increase in labour supply - the labour force participation rate is at its highest since 1991; women's pension age has been increased, and more older workers may be opting to stay in employment longer because of pensions concerns. (Also note - the abolition of the default retirement age may also play a part).
  • Pay increases are lagging - the unemployment rate started falling more quickly towards the end of last year, this may not have yet fed through to pay deals agreed on an annual basis. (HT to Scotiabank which also highlights a potential impact from the introduction of pensions auto-enrolment on pay negotiations).
  • The composition of employment growth - which the data suggests has been at the lower skilled and therefore lower paid end of the spectrum - influencing the pace of growth at the aggregate level.


The central forecast for GDP this year did not materially change from February, with full year growth expected to come in at 3.5%. In a slight change of time from last time, the Bank notes that risks are skewed a bit more to the downside mainly following recent international events.

  • Euro area – weak inflation could exacerbate problems with debt
  • Globally, a normalisation in US monetary policy could lead to more financial market volatility.
  • Domestically, output growth still depends on improving productivity. There is also uncertainty about how easily households and businesses can absorb the gradual rises in interest rates embodied in the market interest rate path.       


Last, but not least, what all this means for inflation. CPI inflation is projected to remain at, or slightly below, 2%, before reaching the target at the end of the two-year forecast period. Risks are seen as fairly balanced, depending on the path of wage growth, though it could also be affected by changes to international energy prices.

Clues on where next for Bank Rate?

The Bank looks set to stick to its wait and see approach. Any turnaround in productivity and wages will tip the balance of views in favour of a rate rise. Thereafter, it remains keen to stress that the most likely path is a very gradual rise in Bank Rate stopping short of historically averages.


UK Trade in charts

Lee Hopley August 08, 2014 11:17

Monthly trade data released by ONS today don't make for cheery reading for those hoping for better balanced growth.  Here's the headlines in pictures.

1. Deficit widens ... a bit in June 

total trade balance (£m)

2. Goods exports fall to both EU and non-EU markets


3. Some markets bucking the trend

% change in exports - three months on three months

4. ...and  some sectors too

% changein exports - three months on three months

5. Trade growth globally has shown only modest growth

% change on a year ago, 3mma
Source:CPB World trade monitor




Tax chat - Labour's reform agenda

Lee Hopley August 07, 2014 08:15

There are a few sure signs we’re in the midst of a general election campaign – babies don’t want to leave their buggies for fear of featuring in an MPs selfie, canapé production ramps up and politicians starting talking about serious issues – such as business tax.

Last week, we learnt a bit more about the business tax plans of a future Labour government (see Delivering Long term prosperity – reform of business taxation). We’re spared the bells and whistles of official tax condocs in a report that neatly sets out what would be some of the early priorities of a Labour administration and the driving factors behind their choices.

Just like five-a-day, predictability makes good sense

First up, businesses would be hard pushed to take issue with many of the principles outlined.

Labour says: Business tax reform should support long-term investment and encourage innovation. The tax system should be simple and predictable and a future Labour government is committed to fairness in the tax system, ensuring revenues are raised to invest in skills and infrastructure.

We say: A stable and predictable tax system is important for businesses that have plans to invest spanning many years. Setting out clear objectives for reforms can help with the process, as can good consultation with business on the technical detail of reform. It will be good to hear more about how Labour would ensure that the improvements to consultation with business we’ve seen in recent years would be sustained. One principle that does feel missing is one covering international competitiveness – not just on the narrow corporate tax rate, but across the system as a whole.

Digging into the detail

There are a couple of tax issues we’ve raised (sometimes at length) that are particularly relevant for manufacturers and indeed for the Labour ambition of supporting long-term investment and innovation – capital allowances and the R&D tax credit.

On the R&D tax credit Labour says: They will improve the targeting of the R&D tax credit to ensure it has the highest impact possible.

We say: We’ll assume that this means it stays, which is really important. The R&D tax credit has been amongst the most stable component of the UK’s tax system over the past decade and the majority of EEF members are aware of it and have experience of using it. Over half of the total value of the credit is claimed by manufacturers, which carry out the bulk of UK business expenditure on R&D. Ideally we’d see the definition of allowable expenditure remain broad and stable and the rate for both large and small claimants should be internationally competitive.

On capital allowances Labour says: There should be a road map for Capital Allowances, factoring in the allowances available in competitor countries and creating a system that will endure over the next parliament.

We say: On the one hand - Amen to that. On the other the proposals are relatively light on the detail of what is wrong with the current system. There are some common misconceptions around the capital allowances regime – it is not a tax credit or incentive, it exists to allow firms to deduct the cost of depreciation from taxable income. There is a balance between ensuring that the pace of technological change and therefore higher depreciation rates are reflected in the tax system and building in stability and predictability. There is a fair bit more work needed to progress towards such as system.

A roadmap of sorts

While a roadmap for capital allowances reform would be good, a road map for all business tax reforms over the next parliament would be better. Labour's report has some components of such a map including, for example, a commitment to work through the OECD BEPS process to tackle avoidance. However, the plan to keep the headline rate of corporation tax rate the lowest in the G7 still leaves quite a bit of scope for interpretation. In addition, taxes such as National Insurance Contributions should also be within the scope of such as roadmap.

As far as initial thinking goes this is a good step in giving business a view on likely tax priorities of a future Labour administration. This matters in the context of providing a competitive and predictable cost base for manufacturers.



Positive. Manufacturing. Indicator?

Lee Hopley August 01, 2014 09:51

Official statistics have reported five consecutive quarters of expansion. Although the most recent data, for the three months to June, indicated a sharp slowdown in the pace in growth.

Kicking off the data reporting for the second half of the year is today's manufacturing PMI. As shown below, the headline indicator fell back to the lowest level seen so far this year. That's not to say alarm bells should start ringing. The survey continues to point to growth in activity across the sector, and at a faster pace than the long-term average. 

Manufacturing PMI
50 = no change
Source: Markit Economics

Output, orders and jobs still growing 

Moreover there is a fair bit of information that sits beneath the composite number - much of it still pretty positive.  Key points:

The headline indicator fell to 55.4 from 57.5 in June, but it has been above the 50 no change mark for 17 months.

Output grew across all sectors (intermediate, investment, consumer).

The employment component was positive for the 15th month running.

Selling prices edged higher.

And in line with a lot of the anecdotal evidence that EEF has picked up manufacturers' focus on new product development and accessing new markets is also reported to be making a difference to the fortunes of the sector this year.

Not a risk free environment

The downward drift in the PMI is still consistent with EEF forecasts for overall manufacturing growth this year and the UK remains the strongest performer in Europe. Also released today were activity indicators for the main Eurozone economies and the picture was patchy to say the least. Manufacturing activity in Germany and Italy is holding firm, but in France and some of the other periphery economies, recovery still looks to be some way off.

While UK manufacturers continue to live with a lacklustre Europe, there are still additional risks which could weigh on activity in the latter part of this year - not least from geopolitical events in Russia and the Middle East, the future path of Sterling, some signs of price increases and capacity pressures in the supply chain.

Manufacturing PMI
50 = no change
Source: Markit Economics


The climb back continues

Lee Hopley July 25, 2014 10:29

There is even more attention than usual on ONS's first estimate of UK GDP in Q2. Cutting straight to the chase the UK economy grew 0.8% in the three months to June and this takes us back ... finally... to where we were before the crisis hit. 

Chart of the year
GDP index, 2008q1 = 100
Source: ONS

The UK economy has now seen six consecutive quarters of growth and over this period real GDP has increased by 4.4%. Most sectors of the economy have been contributing to this expansion, with services up 4.4%, manufacturing up 3.5% and construction up 5.6% over this period. Ahead of today's release the IMF announced that it had revised up its expectation for full-year growth in the UK in 2014 to 3.2% - the fastest rate of growth forecast amongst developed economies.

Ground to be made up everywhere you look

Before we all give ourselves a Commonwealth medal for winning the global race, however, there are a couple of issues that are worth flagging. 

Obviously from our perspective is the weaker than expected quarter for manufacturing output. The sector expanded by a modest 0.2% in the three months to June, the fifth consecutive quarter of expansion but the weakest three-month period of growth we've seen since 2013q1. This was driven by fairly big falls in output in most sectors in May. Some of this was clearly unwound in June and a whole range of survey indicators suggest that this is not likely to be the start of a much weaker trend in the second half of 2014. However, this still leaves a pretty big gap (of some 8%) between 2008q1 and current manufacturing output levels.

Elsewhere, the run of growth across all sectors came to a halt in q2 with output falling in the construction sector and in agriculture. In contrast, services output increased by a robust 1% over the quarter. 

Manufacturing output
Index, 2008q1 = 100
Source: ONS


Secondly, while we're back to where we were before the financial crisis, think about where GDP might have been if the economy had been growing consistently over the past seven years -- that puts the level of catch up into perspective.

Finally, we are far from the first advanced economy to get back over the pre-recession line - many others, including the US about three years ago, managed it well before the UK.

So, policy makers can’t yet afford to take the summer off. We still have a hill to climb in building the right conditions for companies to invest in, and export from, the UK. This includes pressing ahead with measures to secure a more highly skilled workforce, accelerating improvements in access to finance and, working on the pipeline of new infrastructure projects.


Why we're still talking about access to finance

Lee Hopley July 24, 2014 09:09

2000, 2002, 2011 and 2013?

This could be a fiendishly difficult question from a favourite quiz programme amongst EEF bloggers - Only Connect - to which the answer is the years in which reports looking at the state of competition in SME banking were published. The next year in this particular series looks like it will be 2016 if the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) proceeds with a phase 2 investigation of the sector.

CMA concerns about concentration of BCA market

Following the Vickers report (2011) and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (2013) the CMA conducted another market study of Banking Services to small and medium-sized businesses. The review looked at core banking services for SMEs - business current accounts (BCAs), overdrafts and loans - and set out a number of conditions that one might expect to see in a well-functioning market, including SMEs having a broad choice of provider, products and services are customer focused, good levels of innovation, and new players easily entering the market and growing their market share.

In over 180 pages of evidence and analysis, the report concludes that these characteristics are not evident in the UK SME banking sector. This should not come as a surprise as this was broadly the conclusion that others have reached over the past decade. Rather the picture has consistently been one of mediocre satisfaction levels with banks but low levels of switching; a paucity of new entrants into the market, those new challengers remaining rather small in scale and persistent barriers to these entrants from the cost to establishing a (still important) branch network and the costs associated with gaining access to the payments system.

Some facts and figures

The CMA bolsters its arguments with a host of, now widely recognised, facts about the UK SME banking sector:

  • 85% of BCAs are provided by the four largest banks in England and Wales. Concentration levels are higher in Scotland and Nothern Ireland.
  • 4% of SMEs switched provider last year - a lower proportion than those changing their energy or telecomms supplier.
  • Between 10%-20% of SMEs say the service from their bank is poor, but 70% don't see much difference from other providers in the market and comparing prices of BCAs and loans is complex.

Is it all bad?

These stats are not encouraging, particularly as there has been relatively little movement on any of these challenges in recent years. This also doesn't consider what's been happening to the supply of finance since the financial crisis (not a consideration for the CMA in this phase of its review process).

But some things have been moving. We've seen some divestments from the major banks to establish new players in the market, there are greater efforts within government to improve the sharing of credit information, which should provide challengers with more information on potential SMEs customers and the British Business Bank is getting up and running with a range of solutions to boost the presence of challengers and provide more financing alternatives outside of mainstream banks.

So what next?

The incremental steps to facilitate more new entrants and get more churn in the market are fine and welcome, but it could take decades to see a step change in some of the statistics outlined above. Back in 2011 EEF said a clear and actionable response from government to the Vickers recommendations should be an urgent priority. Given the small steps we have seen since, further action on this front feels no less urgent.   

The CMA is now consulting on whether there should be an in-depth investigation into the markets for both personal and business current account and business loan markets and are inviting responses by 17th September (you can find more information here). 

The evidence from the phase 1 investigation would seem to put the balance in favour of further work in this area, if that is what's needed to adopt actions that would accelerate progress towards a more dynamic sector for businesses - not just to offer more choice today, but to ensure the very diverse community of SMEs we have in the UK can access a range of competitively priced financing solutions to support growth in the long run. We also need to ensure that the sector can support these businesses through the ups and the downs of the economic cycle. And with those points in mind a next-phase investigation should perhaps consider pricing in more detail and the extent to which government-routed financial interventions have operated through existing providers in recent years.

Ultimately this has been a longer road than many had hoped in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but we must stay focused on the outcomes of delivering a more dynamic and diverse financing landscape for investment and growth across UK SMEs. 


Labour market still on a roll

Lee Hopley July 16, 2014 12:41

The UK's labour market data has ceased to surprise. Employment has been steadily climbing for the past year and was up 108,000 on the month. The latest statistics also show the unemployment rate hit 6.5% in May - down from 7.8% a year ago and the lowest since the beginning of 2009.

Unemployment rate
Source: National Statistics

Employment growth was seen across all age groups and in both full-time and part-time employment - although the former was stronger and average hours worked nudged a bit higher too. With the more up-to-date figures on the numbers claiming unemployment-related benefits dropping by a further 36,000 in June and the number of vacancies continuing to rise, for the next few months at least we should expect the employment data to be showing more of the same. 

Not so fast...

While the employment data is roaring ahead, pay across the economy is showing relatively little movement.... still. Weekly pay (excluding bonuses) rose by 0.7% in the past three months compared with a year ago and factoring in bonus pay brings that rate of increase down to a meagre 0.3% - either way, running a far bit below the rate of CPI, which measured 1.9% in June.

There are inevitable sector differences, with manufacturing continue to be one part of the economy with faster growth in earnings.

Average earnings growth
% change past three months on a year ago
Source: National Statistics
* Public sector exc financial services

Looking ahead on the pay front the data on overall earnings growth could look substantially worse next month due to significant growth in bonus payments 12 months ago, but these effects will drop out the following month, when earnings growth should come back to current levels.

Does this change anything?

From the MPC's perspective probably not. The employment data say raise rates, the wage numbers say hold off for now. It seems as though the Committee will need to see some concrete signs of productivity picking up and that feeding through to higher pay before they'll make their first move. And whether that comes before the year is out is yet to be seen.


EEF will be blogging on our own Pay Survey later this week   


This is an informal blog about manufacturing and the economy written by EEF's policy and representation staff. While it is written from an EEF perspective, contributions should not be taken as formal statements of EEF policy, unless stated otherwise. Nor does it cover all the issues on which we campaign - you can check these out in more detail at our main site.

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