Business confidence in the UK halved in the third quarter as worries over higher interest rates and weakening sales growth bite, a survey of business leaders has found.
Sentiment tracked by ICAEW’s Business Confidence Monitor (BCM) put confidence at 2.9 on the index for Q3 2023, down from 6.1 in Q2 and below the pre-pandemic average.
Domestic sales growth slowed to its lowest level since Q3 2021, reflecting weakening confidence, the survey found. This was partly driven by slowing customer demand with 37% of businesses citing this as a growing challenge, the highest since Q1 2021.
Concerns over bank charges may have also dragged down overall confidence with the proportion of firms reporting this as an increasing problem at a record high as tighter financial conditions weigh on the economy.
Confidence was weakest in the construction sector, plummeting sharply into negative territory (-30.5). This likely reflected the sector’s exposure to rising interest rates, high input costs and weak customer demand. Heavy rainfall caused delays to planned project work in the sector, which may have dampened sentiment further, the report found.
By contrast, confidence was highest among transport and storage companies due to a strong holiday season boosting demand for leisure travel.
Suren Thiru, ICAEW Economics Director, said “The economy showed increasing signs of distress in the third quarter as the squeeze from deteriorating customer demand and higher interest rates more than offset a boost from easing inflation.”
“The construction sector endured a particularly atrocious quarter as a perfect storm of rising cost pressures, a slowing housing market and unseasonably poor weather obliterated sentiment and output.”
“The forward-looking measures are disappointingly downbeat with weakening indicators of domestic activity, employment and investment intentions suggesting a difficult end of the year for the UK economy.”
Michael Izza, ICAEW Chief Executive, added “Business confidence unsurprisingly remains low given companies’ struggles with a myriad of financial challenges and weakening customer demand.”
“A clear strategy is needed to increase the resilience of the UK economy, and we’d like to see this included in the Autumn Statement. Our members operating across every region and every sector want an economy underpinned by certainty, clarity, stability and the right long-term incentives to influence investment, employment and growth.”
Selling price inflation eased in the quarter, following record growth in Q2, and businesses expect it to drop to its lowest level since Q1 2022 over the next 12 months, as input cost inflation eases. Energy, water and mining are expected to cut their selling prices in the next year, while manufacturing and engineering are set to see big slowdowns in selling price inflation.
While still high by historic standards, salary growth did slow for the first time since Q4 2020 as hiring activity declined, and was weakest in the property sector as confidence slowed amid a deteriorating housing market. By contrast, salary growth was strongest among manufacturing and engineering and energy, water and mining firms, and is expected to slow over the coming year across all sectors.
Capital investment growth continued to slow in Q3, reflecting the overall weakness in business sentiment and numerous financial challenges including the tax burden, bank charges, late payments and access to finance. Companies also continue to restrain their research and development spending.