Martin Flanagan: Glimmers of hope in confidence data

Martin Flanagan says energy and finance are two pillars of Scottish business activity. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Martin Flanagan says energy and finance are two pillars of Scottish business activity. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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It is unsurprising that business confidence levels in Scotland have generally been worse than south of the Border over the past year or two.

To a large extent one can blame it on the oil industry’s travails and their knock-on effect in 2015 and 2016.

Any recovery is likely to be bath-shaped rather than V-shaped

Finance and energy are two of the pillars of Scottish business activity and confidence, and if either one, or both, of them is not in top gear there is bound to be a trickle-down impact on wider business confidence.

READ MORE: Business confidence remains challenging, says ICAEW

Of course, it is not just those factors. Scottish firms are not immune from input price inflation following the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit vote.

The latest ICAEW Business Confidence Monitor shows Scotland remained in negative territory for the fourth consecutive quarter in the period between 26 October, 2016 and 20 January 2017 – however, the confidence score of minus 5.1 was an improvement on the score of minus 11.9 in the previous quarter.

The perennial problem of access to capital continues for about one in six businesses, says the report, while skills shortages are also a cause of concern, says ICAEW.

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The truth is that, depending on the sector (apart from energy, which remains a special case), Scottish business optimism has pulled out of the dive, but any recovery is likely to be bath-shaped rather than V-shaped.

Domestic sales growth has been slowly improving, while the Monitor ascertains a bit more bullishness north of the Border about export prospects. A mixed picture all in all, not grounds for cheering but far from unmitigated gloom. Maybe 2017 will be part of the hard yards towards a greater depth of optimism.

Shawbrook sturdy

Challenger bank Shawbrook is in a pretty decent position to resist the overtures of would be suitors, private equity firms Pollen Street Capital and BC Partners.

Shawbrook yesterday revealed that its underlying pre-tax profits rose 14 per cent to £91.4 million in the year to the end of December.

Stripping out the costs of a controls breach in its business and finance arm, pre-tax profits climbed 29 per cent to £103.4m. The controls breach was unfortunate PR, but the bank still looks a decent independent play.

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