Data Insight: Firm-level analysis of NI trade: A focus on 10X priority clusters

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What we found

Our results are based on the returns of over 5,000 Northern Irish businesses each year (as shown in Table 1). The sample is skewed towards larger businesses as reflected in the high overall average employment figure. The size distribution characteristics of the sample have changed over the period, and this needs to be considered when analysing the descriptive statistics and controlled for when using regression analysis.

Sales per employment increased steadily over the period 2014–2018. As the underlying data has been adjusted for inflation, this increase may be attributed to increased productivity (or changes in the characteristics of the underlying sample). Sales per employment increased in the post-EU exit decision period, relative to the pre-EU exit period. However, sales per employment fell in 2019 by 3.24% and then fell by 8.49% in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. GVA per employment also increased in the period 2014–2017, before stabilising at around £56,000 per employment. 

Differences in sales per employment and GVA per employment are sector-specific.  Companies that use advanced technologies typically have lower purchases and as a result  health and life sciences, advanced manufacturing and software and screen have high GVA per employment relative to sales per employment.

Increases in sales per employment from 2014–2019 are observed in all sectors, except for agri-tech (which fluctuated between £186,600 and £249,200) and other services (which remained relatively static at about £90,000). The greatest growth observed is in the software and screen sector (from £70,500 in 2014 to £123,500 in 2019). COVID-19 had a negative impact on sales per employment in most sectors, except software and screen, which increased its sales per employment from £123,500 in 2019 to £125,700 in 2020.

In all instances GVA per employment in 2019 was higher than in 2014. The largest increase is observed in the software and screen sector (from £39,700 in 2014 to £69,200 in 2020). In 2019, GVA per employment is highest in the construction (£77,900), health and life sciences (£73,400) and other production (£70,300) sectors; and lowest in the agri-tech (£45,200), other services (£45,500) and manufacturing (£47,200) sectors.

Though sales per employment typically declined in 2020, this pattern was not observed for GVA per employment due to reductions in purchasing, provision of subsidies, and reductions in employment. GVA per employment increased in the software and screen and wholesale and retail sectors; and decreased in the construction, professional and scientific, and health and life sciences sectors. Other sectors reported similar GVA per employment to 2019.

Why it matters

Our results suggest that, in real terms, the economic performance of Northern Irish businesses is improving. However, regression analysis suggests a slowing of performance in the post-EU exit decision period (2017–2019) relative to the pre-EU exit decision period (2014–2016). There are sectoral exceptions, with increased sales in the health and life sciences and software and screen sectors. There is also increased GVA in the software and screen sector in the post-EU exit period relative to the pre-EU exit period.

A concern is the wholesale and retail sector, which reported significantly lower sales in the post-EU exit decision period. 

The results suggest that resilience and accommodation to change triggered by the EU exit and COVID-19 is unevenly felt across industries. This underscores the importance of carefully targeted policy interventions.

Our analyses also demonstrate the possibility of distinguishing 10X businesses from non-10X. Such an approach is likely to be of interest to policymakers in evaluating the achievement of the 10X economic vision.

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