Output growth slows for SMEs in October, as labour and supply worries hit all-time high - CBI SME Trends Survey

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​Output volumes among manufacturing SMEs saw slower growth in the three months to October, while fears that labour and materials shortages could impact future production hit an all-time high, according to the CBI’s latest SME Trends Survey.

Completed by 249 companies – the survey shows that growth slowed over the past three months, following July’s record rise in output. However, growth remains solid in comparison to the long-run average, and is also expected to pick up again in the coming quarter.

Total new orders growth also remained firm despite easing on last quarter’s record-high rate, reflecting an easing in both domestic and export orders growth. SME manufacturers expect total new orders growth to be maintained at a similar pace next quarter.

The three months to October saw further strong growth in firms’ headcounts, despite the rate slowing slightly from July’s record high – with expectations for headcount growth to accelerate again in the coming quarter.

However, almost two-thirds of SME manufacturers reported concerns that supply of materials/components could impact output in the next three months – the highest share on record (since 1988).

Concerns over the availability of skilled labour (46%) and other labour (25%) were also higher than at any other time in the survey data’s 33-year history.

Firms reported that growth in average unit costs, domestic prices, and export prices in the three months to October sped up to their quickest on record, and growth in all three is expected to accelerate further next quarter.

Elsewhere, business sentiment was broadly flat after having grown rapidly in the past two quarters. Investment intentions for the year ahead softened somewhat on the previous quarter, but generally remained strong.

Alpesh Paleja, CBI lead economist, said: “The optimism of summer has given way to an uncertain autumn for SMEs in the manufacturing sector, as firms struggle with persistent supply challenges and acute cost and price pressures.

“It has been encouraging to see Government recognise the issues facing businesses and begin to take action to address supply chain issues and skills shortages. Creation of the new supply chain taskforce is a welcome step, and crucially utilises expertise in understanding and addressing these challenges.

“Business and Government working together is the best way to restore momentum to the UK recovery, and move towards building the high-wage, high-skill, high-investment, high-productivity economy that we all want to see.”

Key findings:

  • Output volumes growth in the three months to October slowed from July’s record high (+14% from +36%), but remains strong in comparison to the long-run average (0%). Growth is expected to accelerate in the coming quarter (+30%).
  • Total new orders in the three months to October remained strong, despite a slowdown from July’s record growth (+24% from +46%). This reflected an easing in growth for both domestic orders (+24% from +41%) and export orders (+6% from +15%).
  • Manufacturers expect total new orders to see broadly similar growth over the coming quarter (+26%). Growth in both domestic orders (+30%) and export orders (+12%) is expected to pick up.
  • Numbers employed in the sector grew at a strong pace (+25%), despite slowing on the preceding quarter’s record rate (+30%). Growth in headcounts is expected to pick up (+33%) in the next three months.
  • Business sentiment was broadly flat (-2%) following a summer rebound (+31% in July). Export optimism fell slightly (-5% from +1% in July).
  • Average unit costs in the three months to October grew at the fastest pace (+76% from +68% in July) in survey history (since 1988), and growth is expected to accelerate further next quarter (+80%).
  • Growth in both domestic prices (+47% from +35% in July) and export prices (+34% from +24% in July) hit a new peak in the three months to October. Domestic (+59%) and export price growth (+40%) are both expected to accelerate further in the coming quarter.
  • The share of firms citing concerns over access to materials/components (65% from 46% in July), skilled labour (46% from 33%), and “other” labour (25% from 15%) as factors likely to limit output in the coming quarter reached survey record-highs.
  • Firms expect to increase investment in plant & machinery, product & process innovation, and training & retraining in the next 12 months (relative to the last 12), but to a lesser extent than last quarter. SME manufacturers expect capital expenditure on buildings to fall in the next year relative to the last.
  • 70% of respondents said they had sufficient capacity to at least meet demand – lower than at any other time in the survey’s history.