Consumer sentiment up, Business sentiment down in March

Bank of Ireland Economic Pulse falls slightly

  • Firms more cautious
  • Households upbeat about economy and employment
  • One in three businesses to spend more on investment this year
  • House price and rent expectations positive

The Bank of Ireland Economic Pulse stood at 91.1 in March 2017. The index, which combines the results of the Consumer and Business Pulses, was down 1.4 on February and 5.0 lower compared to this time last year.

The consumer picture brightened this month as households upgraded their assessment of the economy and also took a more upbeat view of their personal finances. In contrast, the unsettled external environment remained a source of concern for many firms and contributed to a fall in the Business Pulse, though sentiment at the sectoral level was somewhat mixed.

Discussing the Economic Pulse, Dr. Loretta O’Sullivan, Group Chief Economist, Bank of Ireland said: “The business mood was more muted this month, which weighed on the headline Economic Pulse reading.”

Consumer Pulse
The Consumer Pulse stood at 92.6 in March 2017, up 2.8 on February’s reading. With the unemployment rate down to an eight and a half year low and preliminary estimates from the CSO showing that the economy put in a strong performance last year, households felt a bit more positive about the overall economic and employment picture this month with almost half thinking that unemployment will fall further in the next 12 months.

Households’ assessment of their own financial situation also ticked up in March, as did buying sentiment with 36% considering it a good time to purchase big ticket items such as furniture and electrical goods, up from 33% in February.

Dr. Loretta O’Sullivan said: “Households had a little more spring in their step this month, which helped the Consumer Pulse recover some ground. The economy expanded by 5.2% in GDP terms last year, which was slightly ahead of most commentators’ expectations. Recent data also show that the unemployment rate fell to 6.6% in February, its lowest reading since July 2008. Amid all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and Trump, households seem to have taken some comfort from the fact that the economy is continuing to grow and create jobs.”

Business Pulse
The Business Pulse came in at 90.8 in March 2017, down 2.5 on last month. Following solid increases in February, the Industry and Services Pulses fell back this month, whereas sentiment was broadly unchanged among retailers. It picked up among firms in the construction sector, though given the time of the year, seasonal factors may account for some of this improvement. The March data also show that one in three businesses expects to spend more on investment this year compared to last year, with replacing and maintaining plant and equipment the main area of focus. Firms in industry are also looking to streamline and extend production capacity, while service firms and retailers are investing in ICT as well as in new premises and equipment.

Many firms are also intending to support staff development initiatives, with almost one in three in the industry (29%) and services (31%) sectors and one in five retail firms (22%) saying they expect to increase their training budgets this year compared to last year.

Dr Loretta O’ Sullivan said: “The Business Pulse was softer this month, with Brexit on firms’ radar as the end-March date for triggering Article 50 fast approaches. Sentiment was mixed in March across the sectors, with a large drop for the Industry Pulse on the back of softer order books and hiring intentions, and a solid increase for the Construction Pulse. ”

Commenting on the investment findings, Dr. Loretta O’Sullivan said: “A range of factors were mentioned as having an impact on businesses’ investment plans this year. Demand from customers, financial and technical conditions were generally seen as a positive, whereas Brexit and Trump-related uncertainty was a negative for some. On the staffing front, it is encouraging to see that firms are paying attention to training and development needs. This will help boost productivity, which is always important and is likely to become even more so in the years to come.”

Housing Pulse
Having eased back last month, the Housing Pulse gathered pace in March 2017, rising to 110.2. The details show that three in four survey respondents expect house prices to increase in the next 12 months, with the capital leading the way at 83%. This compares with 75% in the Rest of Leinster, 72% in Munster and 61% in Connacht/Ulster. Rent expectations were also in firm positive territory in March, with the majority of the view that rents will continue to rise over the coming year. At the regional level, Dublin was again ahead of the pack.

Dr. Loretta O’Sullivan said: “The Housing Pulse resumed its upward trajectory in March, with this month’s reading the second highest in the series’ history. Three in four respondents expect house prices to rise over the next 12 months, with seven in ten expecting rents to increase. The mismatch between supply and demand is continuing to impact the market and is also fuelling expectations for further price and rent growth.”

Regional Pulse
The regional picture was mixed this month, with the Munster and Connacht/Ulster Pulses leading the way and the Dublin Pulse lagging behind. The Bank of Ireland Regional Pulses combine the views of consumers and firms in different parts of the country. The results for March 2017 (3 month moving average basis) show that sentiment was down in Dublin, broadly unchanged in the Rest of Leinster and up in Munster and Connacht/Ulster. Consumers in all regions were more positive about the economic outlook this month, and with the exception of Munster households, were also more confident about their own financial prospects. House price and rent expectations remained in positive territory country-wide in March. On the business front, firms’ take on hiring varied a bit on the month across the regions.
Dublin Pulse = 90.2 – 3 points on the previous survey;
Rest of Leinster = 91.6 – 0.2 points;
Munster = 94.2 + 1.3 points;
Connacht/Ulster = 95.1 + 2.5 points.

About the Bank of Ireland Economic Pulse:
The Bank of Ireland Economic Pulse survey is conducted in conjunction with the European Commission, with the data gathered by the bank feeding into the EU Commission’s Joint Harmonised EU Programme of Business and Consumer Surveys, a Europe-wide sentiment study running since the 1960s. The Economic Pulse surveys are conducted by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of Bank of Ireland with 1,000 households and over 2,000 businesses on a range of topics including the economy, their financial situation, spending plans, house price expectations and business activity.