Print’s Christmas stocking was fuller than it might have been, but Santa’s sack was far from overflowing at the end of 2017 as printers searched in vain for the traditional seasonal uplift.
Nevertheless the 40% that reported an increase in business in the final three months was more than had anticipated any growth, and only 21% declared that output was down.
And the forecast, according to the BPIF's Printing Outlook survey, is much the same: 37% expect output to grow and 38% that it will remain steady. It, says the BPIF, is a forecast which is “positive but subdued”.
The sentiment towards Brexit remains downbeat, with a net effect of positive compared to negative of -33. While this is better than the -44 reported three months earlier and reflects the ending of the first phase of negotiations with the EU, it is far from an endorsement of government progress.
It is also at odds with reports from those whose customers export or growth in sales thanks to weak exchange rates. This counter balanced by rises in paper and board prices for the same exchange rate reasons. Concern about the direction of paper pricing remains a top three concern for printers moving forwards.
The top of the list, however, remains undercutting by competitors pricing below cost. If printers are at the same time expecting to increase output in the next three months, this is not going to disappear in the immediate future.
A third concern is around the lack of availability of skilled labour. As recruitment was higher than expected in the run up to the close of the year, this too is an issue that is set to remain a concern for the industry.
The mix of optimism, inherent in any business owner or manager, is tempered by predictions for the wider business landscape. Intentions to invest for example have strengthened, running counter to reports from the likes of Komori and Heidelberg over the course of last year that uncertainty over Brexit had dampened demand from the UK.
The gloominess over prospects post Brexit is on the other hand endorsed from elsewhere. According to research from the University of Sussex’s UK Trade Policy Observatory, the outlook for the print and paper sector is poor whatever style of Brexit is achieved.
The value of the sector falls by almost 10% under a soft Brexit, the worst forecast for any sector; under a free trade agreement, the fall is almost double, though no the worst hit sector. Under a deal where the UK’s EU trade is conducted on WTO terms , the shrinkage is close to 20%, yet with no EU deal and deals with non EU countries, print is better positioned than most, albeit with expectations of a 10% decline in value.
The UK print and paper industry will suffer more than other sectors from a softer Brexit, though less than other sectors with a harsher departure from the EU, says a report from the University of Sussex. Brexit concerns remain negative for the majority of UK printers according to the BPIF's Brexit Barometer.