Job cuts to deepen despite lift in hopes

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BUSINESS confidence shot up to its highest level since last April as export sales put on the strongest performance in two and a half years and hopes of a steady improvement in the home market grew, the British Chambers of Commerce said yesterday.

But the BCC's latest quarterly economic survey also revealed that large British companies will maintain heavy cuts in jobs in the next few months with only one company in five working to full capacity.

That mixture of optimism and caution was echoed at the annual meetings of three big high street businesses. Bass, Britain's largest brewer, and Burton, the retailer, said sales were recovering but at the expense of margins.

Airtours, the tour operator in the middle of a hostile bid for its rival, Owners Abroad, said bookings for its summer holidays were well ahead of last year.

The broad message of the BCC survey, covering 9,000 large and small manufacturing and service companies, will be confirmed in next week's authoritative Confederation of British Industry poll of manufacturing industry.

The BCC said yesterday: 'The performance of UK exporters is encouraging, but this should not mask the deep difficulties facing UK industry and commerce in the domestic market.'

Nevertheless, the BCC said the sharpest turnaround in business confidence since its surveys began in 1987 had helped to reverse a decline in investment plans. Investment in new plant and machinery has risen by 3 per cent in manufacturing and by 1 per cent in the service sector.

Sir John Hoskyns, chairman of Burton, told shareholders that sales since the beginning of last September were running 14 per cent ahead of the previous year. He warned, however, that the improvement had only been achieved through sharp price reductions.

His claim that customers are more 'promotionally aware' followed comments on Wednesday from Hugh Clark, of the Retail Consortium, suggesting that department stores' sales had held up better than at smaller shops because shoppers were on the lookout for bargains.

He struck a further note of caution by warning that 'the board has not yet detected convincing signs of real economic recovery.' Burton announced almost 2,000 redundancies two weeks ago.

Ian Prosser, chairman of Bass, also treated shareholders to a mixture of good and bad news. He said: 'The Christmas trading period has seen a general improvement in our beer and pub businesses although it is not yet clear whether this improvement will persist through January and beyond'.

Bass's shares rose 13p on the news to 595p, which one analyst attributed to relief that the statement was 'rather less bearish than it might have been'.

David Crossland, chairman of Airtours, told the company's annual meeting that bookings for the current winter season were 17 per cent ahead, while summer bookings were 7 per cent higher.

These figures indicate a significant improvement in trading in recent weeks as the bookings were said to be ahead just 13 per cent and 4 per cent a fortnight ago when Airtours launched its bid for Owners.

Mr Crossland said: 'We are now in our peak booking season and the current level of demand is very encouraging.'