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Manufacturing activity shows slight recovery but is still weak

13 December 2019

Manufacturing output volumes in the quarter to November continued to fall, according to the latest monthly CBI Industrial Trends Survey.

The survey of 307 manufacturers found that total order books improved on October (when they were at their weakest in nine years) but remained significantly below their long-run average. Export order books also strengthened on the previous month (when they were at their weakest since the financial crisis of 2008) but also continued to be below the long-run average.

Output volumes fell at a similar pace to October, with output expanding in only 5 out of 17 sub-sectors. The headline fall in output volumes was driven largely by the motor vehicles, metal products, and metal manufacture sub-sectors. Meanwhile, the main positive contributors to output were the mechanical engineering and plastic products sub-sectors, alongside a boost from aerospace output. Looking ahead, firms anticipate output volumes to be flat in the next three months.

Manufacturers reported that stocks rose further above “adequate” levels. Meanwhile, firms expect output prices to be flat in the next quarter.

Across the economy more broadly, growth has been volatile during 2019, driven by businesses shifting activity in response to moving Brexit deadlines. We expect the economy to grow modestly in the event of a smooth transition to a new Brexit deal, with the longer-term economic impact dependent upon the details within the final deal. For more on the outlook, see our July economic forecast.

Anna Leach, CBI Deputy Chief Economist, said: “While the thick fog of uncertainty from a No Deal Brexit has lifted somewhat, the manufacturing sector remains under pressure from weak global trade and a subdued domestic economy. 

“Order books remain below average, and output volumes continue to fall. When taking into account the deteriorating outlook for manufacturing globally, it’s clear that the outlook for the sector remains precarious.

 “The General Election is an opportunity for all parties to explain how they will shore up our economy. Ratifying a Brexit deal and moving on to build a vibrant future relationship with our biggest trading partner, based on frictionless trade, will be vital – both for UK manufacturers, and business as a whole.”

Key findings:

  • 13% of manufacturers reported total order books to be above normal, and 40% said they were below normal, giving a rounded balance of -26% (up from -37% in October). This remains well below the long-run average (-13%) 
  • 13% of firms said their export order books were above normal, and 35% said they were below normal, giving a balance of -22% – below the long-run average of -17% but stronger than October (-41%)
  • 26% of businesses said that the volume of output over the past three months was up, and 34% said it was down, giving a balance of -9%. This decline was in line with that seen in October (-10%), and below the long-run average (+4%)
  • Manufacturers expect output to be broadly flat in the coming quarter, with 24% predicting growth, and 25% a decline, giving a balance of -1%
  • Average selling prices for the coming three months (-1%) are expected to remain steady. 
  • 21% of firms said their present stocks of finished goods were more than adequate, whilst 3% said they were less than adequate, giving a rounded balance of +17% – slightly above the long-run average (+13%).