Your Thoughts: UK Business Confidence Spike

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After the New Year, the UK pound and FTSE 100 made significant progress, and according to reports, UK business confidence is at its highest in 15 months, eluding Brexit doomsday predictions.

BDO’s Optimism Index, which indicates how firms expect their order books to develop in the coming six months, increased from 98.0 to 102.2 in December, above its long-term trend. This signals that businesses are continuing to stay resilient following the referendum result, the pre-2017 declining value of sterling and volatility in the global economy.

Finance Monthly reached out to numerous sources this week, to hear their thoughts on the pivotal pushes behind this increased confidence, reasons behind the inaccurate predictions of how the Brexit referendum may have affected UK business, and how this situation may progress in 1Q17.

Alister Esam, CEO, eShare:

Personally, this turnaround wasn’t unexpected – I didn’t buy into the doom and gloom that surrounded Brexit at the time. When we leave the EU, the UK will have a GDP of nearly 25% of the EU and it’s hard to take seriously any worries about us not having a trade agreement. The UK is a great country for business that will soon be released – Europe will remain struggling with inefficiency and a currency that doesn’t work.

People are finally thinking clearly about Brexit and what it means for business. Because the referendum result was so unexpected, people hadn’t really thought through the consequences. Those that did were positive in the first place, and others are starting to see that too, now they have been forced to consider what the implications and opportunities are.

I think people originally focused on the negatives. Now it is really happening they have had to focus on their own plans with positivity and find the not-insignificant opportunities this brings in being able to define our own rules, set our own taxation etc. Furthermore, the negatives were false – people argued leaving Europe meant we couldn’t trade anymore, which was daft. By definition, we will be the most EU-aligned of non-EU countries so we will trade with the EU more than any other non-EU country in the world.

I believe we will still have a tough ride in the short term. There remains uncertainty about how exactly everything will fall into place, and leaving the EU was never good in the short term. – it’ll take time for the benefits to emerge.

The on-going uncertainty is likely to affect UK business optimism over the coming months. European leaders failing to get down and solidify a deal, dragging out negotiations to steal pennies from the UK at the cost of pounds and Euros to both. It’s in no-one interests for negotiations to drag on so let’s hope it can be resolved as quickly as possible.

John Newton, CTO and Founder, Alfresco Software:

A positive side effect of global uncertainty is that it helps to push business resiliency. Enterprises will be open to new competition in a deregulated environment driven by significant political change. This, in turn, will positively force corporations and governments to establish new models, based on best practices.

However, it will be impossible to predict the next five years. Companies should be weary of being too optimistic and instead adapt to become more agile and resilient, whether trade deals are good or bad, inflation or not, and growth or not. Therefore, businesses must focus on bolstering digital core competencies and adopting new ways of thinking at the start of 2017. This will enhance enterprise organisations’ ability to deal with both new threats and beneficial opportunities as they arise. Platform Thinking, will help leading edge enterprises to thrive. It creates a single, scalable, central solution through which organisations can route information, automate processes, and integrate third-party innovation. Additionally, instead of building business plans, new digital enterprises should compose their business outcomes through Design Thinking, which puts the user first and solves problems for them. Using this approach will help enterprises design and adapt digital initiatives to respond faster and engage customers who also face uncertainty.

Deregulation is coming, and enterprises should adapt. For example, Blockchain is impacting our financial markets in the way that party-to-party contracts are managed. In the beginning of 2000, when companies weren’t getting their return on investment in the stock market, they turned to the power of data and peer-to-peer directives. Furthermore, asset-light industries (companies with fewer physical assets, and that tend to require less regulation), will emerge as the marketplace winners. While in the technology industry, computing platforms are evolving so rapidly that it is forcing architects and developers to almost relearn computer science. Cloud platforms, in particular, are changing at astounding rates. New concepts around microservice architectures, deep learning and new data, and compute techniques will again challenge the old way of thinking about things.

UK business optimism is set to be tested but there are huge opportunities for us to adapt and adopt digital transformation objectives. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is no longer about who hasn’t adopted digital technology, but those who have digitally and fundamentally transformed their business, creating a new platform to connect with customers. Think AirBnB and Uber.

Owain Walters, CEO, Frontierpay:

Economic data releases have surprised to the upside in post-Referendum Britain, which is very encouraging to see. Nevertheless, the pound has actually been in steady decline since the result of the Brexit vote and is yet to make a turnaround. What we have noticed, is that the pound has plummeted whilst the FTSE100 has prospered as a result.

We must remember that the FTSE100 is full of companies that derive their incomes from outside the UK, and so as the pound has declined since the Brexit vote, their non-GBP earnings are now worth more. As a result, earnings of the GBP denominated stock in these businesses have improved, however, we must not confuse this with a turnaround in the pound.

I would certainly agree that the catastrophic predictions forecast on the immediate impact of the Brexit decision have been proven wrong. Unemployment continues to fall, GDP growth has continued, and we have even seen some high-profile announcements somewhat quashing forecasts of a halt of foreign interest in British business.

However, we can’t thank the pound for these encouraging developments. In truth, the fact that Article 50 has yet to be triggered means that Brexit has yet to have any significant impact on the UK. What we are currently seeing is a great deal of volatility in the markets as we wait to find out what kind of relationship the UK will ultimately have with the EU.

As long as the future of this relationship remains unestablished and the government continues to keep any details of a deal firmly behind closed doors, I believe it’s too early to tell if the predictions for Brexit will be wrong in the long term. That said, in at least the first quarter of 2017, I think we can expect to see further falls in the pound, a jump in inflation and steady GDP growth of around 0.5%.

Lynn Morrison, Head of Business Engagement, Opus Energy:

We recently surveyed 500 SME decision makers to find out how they had been affected by the Brexit referendum result. We found them to be unmoved, with 72% stating that their confidence was either unchanged or increased. Looking forward, it was extremely encouraging to find that nearly two-thirds of the respondents say they expect their income to increase and even expect to grow their business, in terms of headcount, by up to 20% in the next two years.

Considering the initial market reaction to the Brexit result, as well as the sharp decline in the value of the pound and initial drops in the FTSE250, this positive response may seem unexpected; especially given how many larger, more established businesses have been reporting otherwise. It’s likely that this reaction stems from SMEs’ focus on working within the confines of the UK borders. The Department for Business Innovation & Skills estimates that less than 10% of all small and medium sized businesses export directly to the EU, and only a further 15% are involved in EU exporting supply chains. This makes it easier for SMEs to embrace a new trading landscape, possibly less restricted by EU red tape, enabling them to continue with a ‘business as usual’ mentality.

Another source of SME confidence may be the fact that between the declining pound and the potential changes in our trade relationship with the EU, the UK is likely to look to its own businesses to help fill the gaps on products and services that had previously been imported.

Making up 99.3% of all private businesses in the UK, and with a combined annual turnover of £1.8 trillion, SMEs are the lifeblood of our country and their success is invaluable. I think it’s therefore hugely encouraging for the future of British business, and indeed our future relationship with the EU, that SMEs are expecting to not only survive the result of Brexit, but also to thrive in the coming years.

Salvador Amico, Partner, Menzies LLP:

Levels of business confidence were high before the Brexit vote in June 2016 and many businesses were optimistic about the future, bolstered by a strong Pound and UK economy. The Brexit vote result caught many by surprise and created shockwaves across UK businesses.

However, since the vote, it is evident that the world hasn’t ended and that things have moved on. Businesses, particularly those with extensive export operations, who were concerned pre-Brexit vote, have found renewed confidence brought on by the weak Pound and continuing enthusiasm by suppliers and customers to trade with UK businesses.

The UK economy is fundamentally strong and is still considered a world leader in many sectors such as tech and manufacturing. Even the property sector, which is often considered to be struggling in the UK, is benefitted from continuing inward investment, brought about by a weak currency.

Whilst the weak Pound has certainly helped boost business confidence, the UK has proven itself to be a good place to invest for quite some time. Low tax rates and a competitive market presence, combined with strong connections and a creative attitude have long made Britain an attractive place to do business.

Optimism indices have likely been affected by a general feeling that the world hasn’t ended post-Brexit vote, particularly with the majority of business owners who voted for Remain. Many of these businesses are now feeling that everything will be fine.

There has been a real push from businesses in some sectors to break into new markets and to find new customer bases abroad. Whilst there is still much more work to be done, the sense of optimism brought about by a potential increase in competitiveness caused by leaving Eurozone, is hard to ignore.

Dropping tax rates along with the opportunity to introduce new policies to support UK businesses will further boost confidence across the board.

The effects that a weakening Pound would have were perhaps underestimated by some financial commentators, and in particular sectors such as manufacturing, businesses which export will currently be feeling very positive.

It is also important to note that it is perhaps too early to say that the predictions were wrong and we may find that a year down the line the UK economy will look significantly different. This was the case with the effects of the financial crisis in 2008, where it took several years for a ‘new normality’ to resume.

Once Article 50 is triggered it is possible that we may see a further slight dip in confidence if we see the Government move towards a hard Brexit, effectively closing off free access to the EU trade zone.

However, once negotiations begin it will be the media who will play a large part in controlling business confidence through the ways positive and negative news is reported in relation to specific business sectors.

We may see that the Pound is going to remain weak for some time and exporters should make the most of it while they can. There is also still a lot of activity in terms of inward investment coming into the UK and lots of parties looking to make deals and secure contracts. Capitalising on this investment, along with looking to secure the best talent possible – regardless of location – will be key for UK businesses in the coming months.

Problems faced across the Eurozone are very likely to have a knock-on effect for the UK economy and should not be overlooked. Upcoming elections in France and the Italian financial crisis, combined with any slow-downs faced by the EU economy could have a larger impact than many people realise.

The strength of the EU market will be particularly important for businesses selling goods abroad and if that market cools or becomes more turbulent, the ripple effect will be experienced by the UK economy.

Omar Mohammed, Operations and Financial Market Analyst, Imperial FX:

It was a turbulent year in terms of political turnarounds – the unexpected Brexit decision and the unexpected outcome of the U.S election made 2016 one of the most unprecedented years. That caused a lot of loses, suspension of business, re-planning of strategies.

The indices markets in UK and US were on record highs after the Brexit. For instance, FTEE100 is mostly American firms which mainly depends on USD, so whenever the Cable (GBP/USD) is down the FTSE100 is up.

Predictions wrong about the impact of Brexit because of inaccurate opinion polls; both the online and phone polls predicted the majority would vote to remain. The length of the polls needs to extend beyond three days in order to reach hard to reach voters. The less well educated are under-counted in the polls while graduates are hugely over represented.

The first quarter of 2017 expected to be volatile and complicated. The cause of this disarray could be that May herself is muddled. While vowing to make Britain “the strongest global advocate for free markets”, the prime minister has also talked of reviving a “proper industrial strategy”. This is not about “propping up failing industries or picking winners. Her enthusiasm for trade often sits uncomfortably with her scepticism of migration. Consider the recent trip to India, where her unwillingness to give way on immigration blocked progress on a free-trade agreement.

In coming months, UK business will be affected as they will be waiting mid-March for the EU meeting to triggered article 50 which involve heavily on free-trade market and the free movement of European citizens.

Markus Kuger, Senior Economist, Dun & Bradstreet:

Ever since the Brexit vote, the sentiment in the UK has been a melting pot of distinctly differing viewpoints. From Pro-Brexiters to remain campaigners, businesses have been expressing trepidation as the worldwide markets continue to fluctuate. The sterling may have recovered somewhat towards the end of 2016 but has quickly dropped in value, following Theresa May’s hint that the UK will be looking to secure a ‘hard Brexit’. The 14.4% rise that the FTSE 100 posted over the course of last year looks to be a distant memory for the UK; a reason for the end of year boost was arguably due to overseas businesses.

The plain fact is that Brexit has not happened yet and Britain has yet to leave the EU. Against his promise (on which our post-Brexit vote scenario was built on), David Cameron did not invoke Article 50 in the morning hours of 24 June but resigned instead, which has temporarily helped to minimise the effects of the Brexit vote. However, Dun & Bradstreet still expects the Brexit vote to have a significant negative impact on the British economy, especially as ‘hard Brexit’ is now the most realistic scenario.

At the moment, the export-orientated sectors of the economy are benefitting from the weak pound, while domestically-orientated businesses are still being supported by robust consumer spending. That said, the invocation of Article 50, expected towards the end of March, and a potential ‘hard Brexit’ will test the fragile stability of the UK economy, especially as sharply rising inflation rates will reduce households’ disposable income. We strongly recommend that businesses ensure they have the risk management measures in place to deal with the changes. Ensuring that the proper risk solutions are implemented will best prepare a business for any potential market fluctuations.

Although we now expect the government to lay out its Brexit roadmap in the coming weeks, uncertainty will remain high as it will remain unclear if the UK’s and the EU’s positions are compatible and whether a compromise regarding migration controls and market access can be found. Developments in financial services are likely to have a huge impact on the broader UK economy – the financial services sector, including professional services, makes up 11.8% of the UK’s GDP. The impact of firms looking to relocate outside of the UK could have a knock-on effect that leads to further disruption. Our own recent research indicates that 72% of senior financial decision-makers are planning for change post-Brexit. Against this background, we expect businesses to continue to operate smartly and cautiously, while overall prospects in the UK are likely to remain extremely unpredictable in Q1 and beyond.

For context, Dun & Bradstreet recently released a survey on business confidence after Brexit. The results showed that:

  • 64% of businesses say the Brexit vote has negatively impacted their growth potential
  • Over half (59%) believe that leaving the EU will be financially damaging to their organisation
  • 19% of businesses have halted or slowed growth or expansion plans in the UK following the vote
  • Nearly half (49%) of senior financial decision makers admit their business is likely to either leave the UK or reduce investment in the UK post-Brexit…
  • …and more than one in ten (12%) admit this move is “highly likely”
  • 19% of businesses have already seen a dip in deals with European partners and/or customers

(This November 2016 research surveyed 200 senior financial decision makers from medium and large enterprises in the UK.)

Kerim Derhalli, CEO and founder, invstr:

Positive initial data which emerged in the aftermath of the EU referendum has been the catalyst for an ongoing good feeling among businesses, with positive momentum offsetting any continuing political uncertainty.

The UK economy performed well in the run up to June 23, with GDP growth at 2.5%, which helped to cushion any perceived negative impact. Since then, businesses have been buoyed by positive consumer data which has remained broadly optimistic.

UK businesses focused on exports – many of which feature in the FTSE 100 – have enjoyed a boost from cheaper sterling, and are becoming more competitive overseas. Cheaper comparative labour is also having a knock-on positive affect for exporters.

In addition to this, the UK services sector contributed to a 0.6% growth in the economy in the three months following the Brexit vote, fuelling confidence through the end of 2016 and into 2017.

What many observers failed to recognise in the build up to, and immediate aftermath, of the Brexit vote, is that the UK and London in particular still remain highly attractive to international investors.

The core fundamentals that make the UK a good place to do business are still present, and will remain whether the country is within or out of the EU.

The City of London is a world leader in attracting business talent, legal institutions are among the most respected in the world, and UK universities lead the way in innovation and research, continuing to draw students from across the globe. Plus, the UK has the lowest corporate tax rate in the G7 – making it attractive for businesses – and the commercial property sector remains a desirable asset globally.

Predictions underestimated the strength of the UK economy, and the country’s role as a global provider of world-class goods and services. The UK has plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about the future.

Political uncertainty will be the main driver behind any lack of optimism for businesses in 2017. At the moment, the Government looks no closer to confirming any specifics around the terms of agreement between the EU and the UK and, if uncertainty drags on, it could prove a drain on confidence.

That said, a cheaper pound and better global growth prospects, as well as all of the positive business investments we have already seen throughout the end of 2016 and early 2017, will help to offset the uncertainty. This, in combination with the ongoing good data, will serve to strengthen business and consumer sentiment.

We would also love to hear Your Thoughts on this, so feel free to comment below and tell us what you think!

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