The UK printing industry almost exactly matched its downbeat expectations for Q2 in terms of output and orders, according to the BPIF’s latest Printing Outlook, but the forecasts for Q3 suggest some growth ahead.
The quarterly published study of the health of the industry found that 33% of printers increased their output levels in the second quarter of 2018, with 32% holding their output steady and 35% experiencing a decline.
The period was characterised by fluctuating periods of activity and inactivity, with significant dependence on the performance of clients’ markets. However, there also appears to have been a consistent reduction in commercial print run lengths and an increase in ordering delays, the report said.
“Q1 and Q2 might often be a bit quieter while Q3 and Q4 might be busier – those are the normal trends that would occur generally,” said BPIF research manager Kyle Jardine.
“But we’ve heard that the retail sector has been struggling a bit lately, so it’s been a bit tougher for some companies that have many clients in that sector.”
The packaging sector exhibited greater stability, but client performance and levels of uncertainty remained a concern.
Despite the poor Q2, printers expected output growth to bounce back in Q3 with a strong performance. 41% of respondents predicted that they will increase their output levels in Q3 while a further 41% expected output levels to hold steady and only 18% have forecasted a fall in output.
As well as being a significant upturn from Q2, this would mark more growth for the quarter than in the past two years.
“It’s good that there is hope out there. There are a lot of companies doing good things as always, and many have been busy,” said Jardine.
Competitors’ pricing below cost was respondents’ most voiced business concern once again, though the proportion selecting it this quarter was down to 66% - it was 70%, 65%, 70% and 81% in the preceding quarters.
Paper and board pricing remained the second ranked concern and was selected by 62% of respondents, down slightly from 63% last quarter and 60%, 47%, 42% and 32% in the quarters prior to that.
Meanwhile, profit levels being insufficient to ensure investment moved up to become the third ranked concern, selected by 21%. The remaining vote allocation was split across poor output prices, access to skilled labour, Brexit and late payment.
Average prices in Q2 continued to undercut the strongly negative forecasts and expectations for the period ahead have declined to the lowest level for four years.
Costs, meanwhile, continued to escalate – most extremely for paper and board, though labour, energy and ink costs were all increasing too, and printers’ margins continued to erode.
Both of the BPIF’s Brexit Barometers continued to report negative confidence levels – regarding the outlook for the UK economy during the Brexit negotiation period, and following UK withdrawal from the EU.
In comparison to the last quarter, fewer respondents – 18% down from 26% – are now ‘somewhat confident’ regarding the outlook for the UK economy, while 31% – down from 35% – are currently ‘neither confident nor unconfident’ and 42% – up from 33% – are ‘somewhat unconfident’.
The recent resignations from the government’s Brexit team came right in the middle of the survey period, which will have affected confidence, the BPIF noted.
“Whilst the range of attitudes and opinions [regarding Brexit] are varied, the consensus is clearly fearful of what lies ahead and concern over how business might contend with the potential shocks and disruptions,” said Jardine.
“We have been actively examining the impact on our industry and representing the industry to government, now our focus must also turn to developing advice back to the industry.”
He added: “We need a breakthrough in negotiations for confidence to return.”
Elsewhere, the report said overall capacity utilisation polarised in July compared to April as a proportion of respondents shifted to higher utilisation while others saw their utilisation fall.
Finally, employment in the industry fell, on balance, in Q2 as more companies reduced rather than increased employee numbers.
The BPIF Outlook survey was carried out during 3-20 July 2018 and polled 146 companies representing 8,710 staff and a combined turnover of more than £1.2bn.