Northern Ireland

Fears of public sector cuts affect consumer confidence

Angela McGowan
Image caption Angela McGowan said the general election and June emergency budget had heightened uncertainty for consumers.

Fears about forthcoming cuts in the public sector have suppressed consumer confidence in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Bank.

The latest findings are contained in the bank's Consumer Confidence Index.

Its economist Angela McGowan said the general election and June emergency budget had heightened consumer uncertainty.

Thirty-five per cent said their finances had deteriorated compared to one year ago.

Only 15% believed their household finances would improve over the next 12 months, while 28% felt their financial position would worsen.

More than 1,000 people were surveyed.

The bank's Consumer Confidence Index for NI sat at 115 in Quarter 3 (with 100 representing the lowest point at the height of the financial crisis in September 2008), showing no improvement on the previous quarter.

The index saw a drop in confidence around expectations for future finances and a decline in how households now perceive their financial position relative to one year ago, fuelled by uncertainty around imminent public sector cuts.

Ms McGowan said consumers had not regained confidence since talk of looming cuts in public spending began.

"Households appear to be factoring higher taxes and lower benefits into their financial outlook," she said.

'Uncertainty'

"Despite the fact that job losses in Northern Ireland have been relatively low compared to other regions, there has simply been a shortage of good economic news.

"The coalition government's focus on addressing the public deficit by reining in public spending translates into uncertainty for households about their future disposable income."

The survey also found a small but surprising improvement in job security and spending expectations.

Only 12% of households surveyed plan to spend more, although the proportion of households who plan to spend less fell from 34% to 32%.

A surprisingly large proportion of local households (78%) expected no change in terms of their job security, while the proportion of respondents who felt that their job security would deteriorate fell from 12% to 8%.

Ms McGowan said the "marginal improvement in feelings about job security is surprising".

"It does perhaps suggest that despite heightened talk of public spending cuts, public sector workers do not actually envisage any large scale job losses within the next 12 months," she said.

"They might also be anticipating frozen pay and reduced pensions, but not immediate job losses."

Ms McGowan said that local households face a cocktail of concerns around austerity cuts, rising prices and a stalled housing market, all of which work to depress overall confidence.

"Without doubt, sentiment in the next quarter will be heavily influenced by the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Executive's response to it," she said.

"The timing and severity of future cuts are clearly key influences on this index going forward."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce the details of his Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October.

This will set out both how much the UK will spend over the next four years.

It will also indicate how much less departments in Whitehall and the devolved administrations will have compared to their current budgets.

The NI Executive has already had to cut hundreds of millions of pounds from its budget in the wake of the economic downturn and the massive fiscal deficit.

The 'Consumer Confidence Index for Northern Ireland' examines five key areas which include information on personal finances compared to 12 months ago, as well as consumers' expectations for spending, job security and their general financial position over the next 12 months.

The survey also gathers information on household savings.

The study was carried out by Millward Brown in September 2010.

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