Businesses entered the new year with renewed positivity as overall confidence rose to the highest level for nearly two years according to the Lloyds Business Barometer.
The research shows overall confidence rose to 44%, up 9 points on the previous month. It was the biggest monthly increase since August and the highest level of confidence reported since February 2022, when the UK economy was recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also the strongest start to a year since January 2016.
The increase in confidence is driven, in part, by the easing of inflation over the past year and the growing expectation that interest rates will start to decline this year.
The positive sentiment partly reflected optimism about the broader economy. Despite continued geopolitical risks, the survey shows that broader economic optimism has increased, rising to 37%. Trading prospects for 2024 were also the strongest they have been for over six years with the net balance increasing 3 points to 51%.
Companies’ hiring intentions bounced back from December’s fall as businesses look to prioritise attracting talent and retaining existing staff members. The net balance of firms expecting to increase headcount rose by 4 points to 33% – a result that is higher than almost every month in 2023 except for November.
Elsewhere, firms’ expectations for staff pay fell back after December’s rise. The share of companies anticipating wage growth of 4% or more in the next 12 months was the lowest for five months, and remains lower than levels across the past year. Similarly, the share of businesses expecting pay growth of at least 5% also remains below last year’s level. Despite this, the longer-term view shows wage growth expectations still remain above pre-Covid levels.
Hann-Ju Ho, Senior Economist Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, said:“Businesses are feeling more confident following the cautious end to 2023, with this being the strongest start to a year since January 2016. The reduction in inflation, albeit with the recent uptick, and the belief that interest rates may have peaked is likely driving the rise in confidence among firms.
“With ongoing geopolitical issues and a general election on the horizon, businesses will have factored these into their risk radars and will be working to prepare for any potential impacts on their trading prospects.
“Also, half of all companies say they’re planning to increase headcount in the coming year. Despite that and the changes to minimum wage that will come into force in April, expectations for staff pay fell back following last month’s increase.”
The pricing expectations of companies fell for a second month – the first consecutive decline since June 2022. 60% (down two points) of firms plan to raise their prices with a while 4% (up from 3% in December) said they planned to cut their prices.
Three of the four sectors tracked in the Barometer reported rises in confidence. The most significant increase was in services which accelerated 15 points to 45%, up from December’s 16 point drop. Manufacturing confidence also increased to 49%, while construction increased/rose 8 points to a 10-month high of 45%. There is a more mixed picture is retail however, dipping 3 points to 41% with anecdotal evidence of weaker footfall and sales in December as shoppers hit the streets earlier than usual in November. Nevertheless, some companies still reported stronger sales over the festive period.
Paul Gordon Managing Sirector for relationship management, Lloyds Bank Business & Commercial Banking said “We’ve seen improved confidence in almost all sectors – a promising turnaround from December’s decline. A seven-month high in manufacturing and similarly positive results in construction make for positive reading. Although the retail sector reported lower confidence, there are reasonable explanations for this when taking consumers’ shopping habits into account coupled with cost-of-living pressures.
“Businesses showed incredible resilience in the face of tough economic circumstances last year, so it’s reassuring to see that confidence has rebounded to start the new year off brightly.
“While the figures do make for more positive reading, there is still caution within the economy. So, it’s imperative that businesses plan effectively for the year ahead to secure their future.”