Financial services fighting back

Although optimism is now stronger than at any time during the last two years, the recovery been slower than predicted.

Business volumes are expected to increase over the next three months, but levels of business are still lower than what firms would consider normal.

Business dipped, understandably, in the September survey and although business optimism had stabilised by December it has taken a further three months to begin to improve significantly. On the whole though, the survey suggests that the aftermath of 11 September was not as bad as had initially been predicted.

Ian McCafferty, chief economic adviser at the CBI, said: "The decline in business in financial services has bottomed out but we have yet to see a resumption of the relatively strong rate of expansion that would be regarded as normal in this sector. Profitability has been hit but firms appear confident that their efforts to get a grip on costs, and especially staff costs, will turn profits round."

The largest increases have come from finance houses and building societies, banks and general insurers reported more modest increases by comparison.

John Hitchins, financial services partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that despite the growth, there is still cause for concern over the potential introduction of the Euro into the UK.

"This latest survey clearly shows that the industry is continuing to focus on cost reduction and that the outlook for employment and investment remains bleak. Despite the introduction of Euro notes and coins on the continent there also appears to be a lack of commitment to investment in preparation for possible UK entry. The industry runs the risk of leaving itself vulnerable if the government should decide to go for rapid entry."

Another mixed aspect of the survey was that while the number of firms who conduct at least one per cent of their business on the web has increased from 72 per cent in the last survey to 85 per cent in this one, only four per cent are doing more than 31 per cent.

This has been blamed on a lack of understanding by customers and suppliers. Sixty nine per cent of firms said it is a problem at the moment and 47 per cent said it is of critical importance for the next year.