This article first appeared in The Herald on Friday 5th August, 2022.
This year has not seen the return to normality that many businesses hoped for. Supply chain disruption, rising prices, hiring difficulties, interest rate increases, and lack of confidence are taking their toll. Many economic organisations are now forecasting potential slowdowns in the UK and globally, but significant uncertainty remains around forecast business conditions.
One of the challenges in predicting slowdowns is the timing. Robust data often takes months to collect, so we often do not know if the economy has started slowing until months after it begins.
It’s helpful to step back and look at the significant economic drivers in times of such uncertainty. Survey snapshots, such as our recently published Scottish Business Monitor sponsored by Addleshaw Goddard, can provide some hints. So, what are businesses saying about their current performance and expectations for the coming year?
Starting with the positives, more businesses reported an increase in sales volume in the year’s second quarter than a fall, resulting in a net balance of +15%. This net figure is reasonably high, and this level hasn’t been seen in our survey since 2014. Employment, new business, and capital investment indicators also remained positive for the second quarter.
On the face of it, businesses have been remarkably resilient. Few people predicted emerging from one of the greatest human health crises in over a century with unemployment rates near record lows. Scottish onshore GDP grew by 0.6% in May, now 1.1% above February 2020 levels of output.
But concerns are now starting to emerge in the data. The net balance of the sales volume is still positive but has weakened since the start of the year. Looking ahead to expectations over the next six months, the positive but weakening finding is consistent across many indicators such as business volume, new business, and employment.
This weakening is mirrored across several other surveys. The June RBS Purchasing Managers’ Index showed the weakest expansion in Scotland’s business activity since January. Only 13% of UK businesses in the ONS’ Business Insights and Conditions Survey reported an increase in turnover in June compared to 24% reporting a decrease, and expectations for August are negative.
The most commonly reported challenge impacting these turnover figures is the cost of materials. Our survey has been asking Scottish businesses to report on their business costs since 1998 and provides a useful reference for the scale of this challenge.
The past four quarters have shown cost increases across the board. Costs for energy, employees, inputs, imported goods and services, distribution, and credit are all increasing or already very high. Compared to the 23 years of surveyed total business costs between 1998 and 2020, each of the past four quarters is a record breaker.
The knock-on impact of these price rises continues to filter through to the economy. An ONS survey states that 44% of UK firms have reported absorbing costs, while 26% passed on price increases to consumers. Two in five Scottish firms we surveyed said they expect to reduce their operations due to energy prices.
Concerns exist around how these supply-side issues could lead to significant demand-side impacts and contribute to a slowdown. So, what does the evidence show on how the major drivers of demand – consumer spending, export demand, government spending, and investment – have been affected?
Household spending accounts for almost two-thirds of Scotland’s GDP, but many people have seen their costs increase while their wages have failed to keep up. The likely impact is people dipping into savings, borrowing, buying fewer goods and services, or substituting for cheaper goods and services.
On savings, aggregate data up to May on net household deposits to UK banks has so far remained relatively stable over the year. If consumers, as an aggregate, start dipping into savings, this would be worrying not just for living standards but also for a potential reckoning down the road as these savings eventually run out. Credit card borrowing does appear to have increased, but total borrowing is still moderate compared to the past decade.
However, UK Retail Sales data up to June shows rising sales values and falling sales volumes. Inflation has driven what is now a significant wedge between these trends. Sales volumes have fallen close to levels seen in June 2019. Perhaps not yet concerningly low, but the trend is worrying both in terms of living standards and the consequential impact on businesses and their supply chains.
For now, the data primarily points to reductions in delayable purchases such as furniture. Mostly anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers are opting for cheaper options in supermarkets and switching to budget retailers.
If domestic demand appears to be showing initial signs of slowing, will exporting come to the rescue? Most Scottish businesses in our survey say no. Pessimism exists about export performance over the next six months, and a global slowdown in 2023 appears increasingly likely.
Government spending in Scotland was projected to barely increase in real terms between 2022/23 and 2025/26, and inflation expectations have since worsened. The cost-of-living payment and £400 energy rebate will likely partially offset but not reverse expected negative consumer trends. However, it remains to be seen how UK policy may change under new leadership.
According to the Bank of England, investment intentions are still positive, and firms are increasingly looking toward energy-saving investments. But some firms are reassessing investment plans as the economic outlook worsens.
The challenges this year result from a perfect storm of supply chain issues. This included several surprises on the downside. An optimist may hope for the possibility of surprises on the upside too. Any signs of improved energy supply and production levels in China deserve attention over the coming months.
For now, the message for businesses is don’t panic but do worry. But for many people, there is increasing evidence that we are leaving a health crisis only to enter a crisis of living standards.
James is a Fellow at the Fraser of Allander Institute. He specialises in economic policy, modelling, trade and climate change. His work includes the production of economic statistics to improve our understanding of the economy, economic modelling and analysis to enhance the use of these statistics for policymaking, data visualisation to communicate results impactfully, and economic policy to understand how data can be used to drive decisions in Government.