CONSULTANTS' CONFIDENCE in their most important overseas markets has collapsed following the South East Asian currency crisis.
Research from NCE's 1998 Consultants File has revealed an outbreak of pessimism among UK firms - in contrast to public pronouncements of continued confidence.
In last year's File, 71% of firms predicted an increase in workload throughout the Pacific Rim during 1997, with only 6% expecting a downturn. However, this year's File shows only 47% of firms with workload in the region up, while 19% saw levels slump.
The outlook for 1998 is even worse, with 45% of consultants still hoping for a boost, but 29% - four times as many as a year ago - expecting work to decline.
Pessimism is strongest in the classic tiger economies. While NCE's research supports consultants' claims that they are not deserting the region - notional presence in most countries is maintained - confidence in growth has largely disappeared.
In 1997, for example, of the 55 firms working in Malaysia, 28 said the country would be among the strongest growers. This year, there are still 54 consultants claiming to have work in the country, but only five are still prepared to back it as a potential boom market.
The pattern is repeated throughout the region. Last year 13 of the 42 firms working in Indonesia were confident the economy would provide a surge in infrastructure spending. This year it is two from 42.
In Singapore the figures are three from 36, compared to eight from 35 in 1997. In Thailand they are one from 34, compared to seven from 30; in Vietnam, two from 24 compared to five from 26; and in South Korea, one from 22 compared to eight from 20.
The one continuing bright spot in the region is China and its new 'Special Administrative Region', Hong Kong.
Ironically, there appears to have been an exodus by UK consultants from the newly expanded country - suggesting that both the handover of Hong Kong and the increasingly competitive nature of the region's construction market discouraged many from staying put.
However, those that are sticking around continue to express confidence. Last year of the 53 companies working on the Chinese mainland, 25 said it would be a growth market. This year, it was 23 from 42. In Hong Kong, the number of firms operating in the region fell from 54 to 50, but those backing it as a potential boom area rose from eight to 10.
The full analysis of the UK consultancy sector can be found on page 4 of the Consultants File.