The BPIF has released its latest Printing Outlook study of the health of the industry, highlighting that while orders in the fourth quarter of 2014 experienced a strong improvement over Q3, optimism among printers for the first quarter of 2015 is more cautious.
Both printing output and orders continued to grow in Q4, with more than half (56%) of printers able to grow their order levels. 27% managed to keep orders at a steady level while 18% suffered from falling orders.
The Q4 performance for both orders and output extends the positive growth run to seven consecutive quarters.
Printers expect Q1 2015 to be more challenging, however, although they still maintain a positive outlook overall. 54% of respondents believe they will be able to maintain orders at their current level while 27% think they will be able to increase order levels.
While confidence in the general state of trade in the industry remains positive, printers are less confident about the current quarter than they have been at any point in the past 18 months due to factors including the looming election, economic performance, energy and input costs and exchange rates.
Over three-fifths (61%) of respondents believe that the general state of trade in the industry will hold stable in Q1, while 22% think the UK print market will improve rather than worsen.
But by far the main business concern among printers, with 85% of respondents noting it as one of their top three business concerns, is competitors pricing below cost.
The second ranked concern, selected by 34% of respondents, is the ability of profit levels to sustain required investment levels, while late payment by customers has become the third ranked concern, as selected by 28%.
BPIF research manager Kyle Jardine said: “The orders and output results suggest that there was a post-recession period during which expectations were overly optimistic and in which actual performance was subdued. However, since 2013 demand has picked up and the positive forecasts have been more closely matched.
“Things did seem to be quite busy in Q4, and this hasn’t always been the case in the years since the financial crisis. It’s good to see seasonal pick-up in Q4 starting to happen again.
“The forecasts for Q1 2015 are less optimistic than the seasonally boosted Q4 but nonetheless remain positive in what is a traditionally quieter period for many companies. An examination of current order books does seem to support the Q1 forecasts.”
BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold added: “Our sector is characterised by a strongly seasonal pattern to demand. The industry was very busy indeed in Q4, and it's encouraging to see that the industry has experienced seven consecutive quarters of growth.
“However, with members expecting to operate at around 80% of capacity in Q1, the focus will be on controlling costs and negotiating as carefully as possible on prices.”
According to the BPIF, early analysis of Q1 2015 showed that capacity was lower in January than in the first month of Q4 2014 (October), with the majority of firms operating in the 70%-89% ranges, while expectations that margins might just move into positive territory in Q4 proved to be unfounded.
Export demand took a turn for the worse in Q4, despite the positive expectations, while UK demand for printing papers and boards decreased very slightly in the first three-quarters of 2014.
More positively, employment levels continued to show a positive recruitment balance in Q4, although results for the current quarter may see a drop in employment. Respondents also predict that average energy costs and paper and board costs will fall, on balance, in Q1 2015.
Furthermore, the industry is continuing to make strong capital investment plans, especially to deliver product and process innovation.
“Companies are looking into what areas they need to invest in and that’s partly because investment was cut pretty much cut off during the financial crisis. They are looking not just at machinery but into other investments they need to make as well, for example in employees, training and product innovation areas,” said Jardine.
“Overall there are concerns over a few things but the trade is there. Companies have to fight for it and ensure that their business is being run in the best way that it can be to keep going into the future.”
The BPIF Outlook survey polled 100 companies representing 4,103 staff and £442m in turnover.