The latest quarterly Business Monitor Report (January to March 2016) has highlighted an overall continuing solid picture of recovery with 88% of businesses on the island reporting growth; however the disparity between domestic market traders and those engaging in export is increasing.
North-South trend reversal
The research indicates that there is a gap in growth between Northern Ireland, where 32% of firms reported growth this quarter, compared to 41% in Ireland, which is almost a direct reversal of the 2015 Q4 findings when 41% of Northern Ireland SMEs reported growth as opposed to 34% based in Ireland. This quarter, across the island, an imbalance was also seen in the size of firms that are growing, with more medium (55%) and large (60%) firms in growth mode compared to only 36% of smaller firms.
Advantages of exporting
The benefits of exporting are clearly seen in the survey, with 52% of those trading in the cross border market reporting growth this quarter, compared to 34% of companies which are solely active in their domestic market. Just under two thirds of these SMEs (62%) are based in Northern Ireland and have sold their products and services within the Republic of Ireland in the last 12 months, accelerating their growth and development.
Cross-border can be springboard to new additional opportunities
69% of organisations that have exported initially in the cross border market have used this experience to move into other new markets within the UK, Europe or further afield, demonstrating that these vital first steps in exporting can open further business opportunities for firms. Many companies trading successfully outside their own markets have been engaged in exporting for more than five years.
Ambition to grow is strong
With a general ambition to grow reported by 55% of firms in Northern Ireland, awareness of and access to business supports has never been more vital to help SMEs overcome initial reticence towards exporting. With a well-thought out strategy, businesses can move onto a growth trajectory or pathway that is consistent with the strategy outlined in the ‘Export Matters Action Plan’ launched recently by the then Department for Enterprise Trade and Investment (now known as the Department for the Economy).
Figures for the manufacturing sector, while broadly positive, point to some concerns. In particular, decreases in the numbers reporting sales and employment growth over the past quarter. On the other hand, the construction sector continues to rebound from its low point eight years ago.
The outlook for employment remains cautiously positive with 13% of businesses planning to increase jobs and only 1% planning to decrease employment in the next year. This outlook is shared across all sectors but particularly within the Professional Services Sector.
Barriers to exporting
In relation to exporting, there still appears to be apprehension among businesses, both north and south, which have suitable goods and services for cross border trading, to export or consider exporting. Three quarters of firms on the island are not exporting in any form, with 55% stating they either ‘don’t want to’ or feel their closest market, cross border, is ‘too far away’. An additional 18% are concerned about the ‘costs associated with entry to new markets’.
Cautious optimism in unpredictable global climate
This quarter’s results, which assess the pulse and mood of businesses across the island, support the cautiously positive economic projections for both economies. But given that businesses which are exporting are outperforming those trading domestically; they also indicate that unexpected external shocks could disrupt what is now a fairly positive economic outlook.
InterTradeIreland’s Business Monitor
InterTradeIreland’s quarterly Business Monitor survey is the largest and most comprehensive business survey on the island and is based on the views of more than 750 business managers across Northern Ireland and Ireland.
It differs from other surveys in that it is seen to be the ‘voice of local businesses’ feeding directly from telephone interviews conducted with a robust sample of firms of all sizes from across a range of sectors to track all-island economic indicators such as sales, employment, business outlook and other specific topical research areas on a quarter by quarter basis.