The printing industry was in better shape than envisaged during the first quarter of this year but there are signs that market may be slowing, according to the BPIF's Printing Outlook Survey published this week. The latest industry trading trends survey report covers the first quarter of 2011, ending 31 March. The survey was carried out online during the period during the period 1-15 April 2011, and consists of 102 companies employing 8,752 people with a turnover greater than £1 billion.
The Q1 results show that the UK print trade improved on balance for the fourth consecutive quarter. While just over half of firms (51%) stated that trading conditions were unchanged, 30% signalled improvement compared with 20% that reported deterioration, making this the longest period of growth since 1994. However at +10, the Q1 balance between companies expecting improvement versus those expecting deterioration was the lowest in this positive sequence - with the number experiencing a worsening in trade increasing noticeably this time. This may herald the start of a weakening market; an assumption that fits with the less optimistic forecasts being made for the second quarter of the year. While more than three quarters of printers believe that trade will remain the same in the April to June period, a marginal negative balance of -2 expects a tougher time. This forecast is only the second negative prediction for the quarter over the past 20 years.
More firms reported that they are working to full capacity during this last quarter, although others saw utilisation rates fall. Lead times are starting to shorten, with the number of firms reporting lead times of 7 months or more falling sharply to just 1%, compared with a fifth of all printers at the time of the last survey and 13% during Q3 2010. The majority (57%) now report lead times of up to three weeks, compared with 36% during the final quarter of last year.
The survey shows little overall change in domestic demand, with the order situation signifying something of an overall static market. Approximately half of respondents reported no change in order levels during the first quarter, while the remainder were split between those seeing a rise in demand versus a decrease. Forecasts for Q2 suggest that more printers believe that they will experience a better period themselves than the trade in general, with 30% expecting a rise in demand. This compares with 17% predicting that order levels will dip.
Output levels strengthened during first quarter, despite static demand. Respondents also expect production to be in line with improved order levels during Q2. There was little overall change in industry employment levels in the first quarter, although some job losses are expected in the period ahead.
Nearly a third of respondents had raised domestic prices but similar level had been forced to cut them. The overall 'no-change' scenario, which was better than forecast, was in line with the previous three quarters. The Q2 Outlook is much the same. As expected, inflationary pressures on costs continued, with no let-up expected in Q2. Paper and board remains the biggest cause of concern, with almost three-quarters expecting further price hikes during Q2 2011.
Margins continue to be being squeezed but a fifth of printers still posted improvement nonetheless. Prospects for the next quarter appear poorer though, and profit levels appear to be in retreat with more firms posting losses. More than half of respondents revealed that they were either making a profit of up to 4% or none at all. This compared with a third in this position three months ago. In addition, only 15% (compared with 26% last time) reported profits of 7.5% or more.
Greater investment is earmarked for buildings, while spending on plant and machinery is to lessen. While the majority of printers (92%) continue to invest in the latter, the level of expenditure is on the decrease. Only a third looks set to spend more on new and upgraded units, whereas 45% intend investing to a lesser degree. On the other hand, two-thirds of firms plan investment on the alteration of buildings, up from 52% at the time of the last survey, while 40% have capital expenditure plans for new buildings, an increase from 33% last time.
Respondents reported some easing of the position in relation to access to finance. In the year to March, 25% of respondents experienced an improvement in the availability of bank lending facilities and 26% a reduction in the cost of bank lending. Whilst the percentage of respondents reporting an improvement in the availability of bank lending was almost entirely offset by those reporting an increase in its cost, a significant positive balance remained for the availability of bank lending - with only 13% reporting a decline.
BPIF Public Affairs adviser Andrew Brown says, "The BPIF's Q1 Printing Outlook Survey results suggest that the printing industry has got off to a reasonably good start to the year, with a run of improvements in trade that has now lasted for four successive quarters. However there are signs that the market is weakening, with a slight majority of respondents forecasting that trade will remain the same or get tougher in the second quarter of this year. There is also a great deal of anxiety over rising costs and weakening profit levels, and the inability of many printers to raise output prices is a major concern as they continue to absorb further rises in input costs."