Printing Industry Leading Indicators Turn Up at the Start of 2021
Confidence and quote activity have turned sharply higher, according to preliminary results of the first-quarter 2021 Print Business Indicators Survey. The gains reflect progress in controlling COVID-19 and the renewed vigor of the American economy. Expect growth to begin for the printing industry next quarter and accelerate through year end.
The Print Business Indicators Survey is conducted by NAPCO Research and PRINTING United Alliance. Participants include commercial printers, graphic and sign producers, apparel decorators, functional printers, and package printers/converters that have annual sales ranging from less than $500,000 to more than $500 million, and are located across the United States and Canada.
Our current business indicators show the printing industry is still contracting. For example, companies surveyed in early March expect their sales (all sources) to be down 13.9%, on average, this quarter from year-earlier levels. More than 61.0% expect a decline while just 21.0% expect an increase. (Another 11.4% expect no change, and 6.6% say business is so unpredictable they still don’t know how this quarter will compare to a year ago.)
Our leading business indicators say growth is coming. As the figure below shows, 55.7% of companies surveyed so far expect business to improve during the month ahead, up from 30.7% last quarter, and 47.6% report quote activity is increasing, up from 33.9% at the close of 2020. Both indicators are at their highest level since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.
Why the improvement? Belief that we’ve reached a tipping point in controlling the virus is the primary reason. Widespread vaccination and heard immunity will not mean a quick return to normal but should mean the rules will no longer be changing from month to month. That matters: When we asked our research group about the biggest challenges of the pandemic, ongoing uncertainty, cited by 75.2%, topped the list. (Depressed demand, cited by 73.9%, and supply disruptions/difficulty obtaining materials, cited by 48.5%, followed.)
Greater clarity and lots of money from the Fed and Washington have the American economy ready to take off. GDP will grow 4.9% this year — the fastest since 1984 — according to the consensus of economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal. Only three months ago the consensus expected 3.6% growth.
As the economy accelerates, so will the printing industry. PRINTING United Alliance expects total industry sales to increase 2.5% – 4.0% in 2021, after decreasing 16.0% – 18.0% in 2020. The economy’s prospects are improving so quickly that we may have to revise our forecast up.
Bottom line: Recovery is almost here, but no one is guaranteed a piece of the action. Business and consumer behavior will continue to change in the aftermath of COVID-19. The big winners will figure out early what’s changing, which changes are permanent and which are temporary, and how to make it all an opportunity rather than a threat.
They will also be prepared for inflation and labor shortages. Inflation is causing trouble already: 36.4% of the companies surveyed to date report problems with rising substrate costs and 26.1% with rising consumable costs. Nearly 36.0% have raised prices, double last quarter’s 16.5%, but rarely enough to protect margins: Pre-tax profitability is rising for 22.2% and falling for 41.6%. As the supply disruptions caused by COVID-19 ease, so will some of the pressure on prices. But with the money supply growing at a 25.8% rate — four times the 6.7% year-ago pace — is inflation really behind us?
Concerning labor shortages, we’re already hearing comments such as: “We’re trying to find anyone willing to work,” and “We can’t add employees faster than they retire or leave. Everyone says there are a lot of people looking for jobs, but we can't find them.”
Our survey also investigated the growth potential of more than 20 printed products and how participants are diversifying beyond their primary printing segment. The full results will be published in the April issue of COVID-19 Print Business Indicators Research, A Path Forward.
In the meantime, PRINTING United Alliance members can download a copy of our most recent report here, and non-members can download an executive summary here. And we can all be thinking about sharpening market analysis, adaptability, efficiency, execution, and the other skills that will determine who participates in the recovery ahead and who gets left behind.
Andrew D. Paparozzi joined PRINTING United Alliance as Chief Economist in 2018. He analyzes and reports on economic, technological, social and demographic trends that will define the printing industry’s future. His most important responsibility, however, is being an observer of the industry by listening to the issues and concerns of company owners, executives and managers.Previously, he worked 31 years at the National Association for Printing Leadership. He has also taught mathematics, statistics and economics at various colleges.Andrew holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics f rom Boston College and a Master’s degree in economics — with concentrations in econometrics and public finance — from Columbia University.