City of London landscape is seen from the top of The Monument on November 7, 2017. Picture credit: Tolga Akmen
PageGroup's record fourth quarter rests entirely on the back of its non-UK business

Being caught out exaggerating one’s CV is always embarrassing. Britain’s thin-lipped insistence that it was sufficiently accomplished to thrive on its own may yet come true. Right now, however, it is clear Europe looks the stronger candidate.

On Wednesday, London-listed recruiter PageGroup released a trading update that chimes with other awkward data in suggesting the UK is lagging its continental neighbours. A record fourth quarter rests entirely on the back of non-UK business. The company’s homeland, which accounts for 18 per cent of gross profits (total income made in fees), was the notable exception.

Held up against its own recent past, the UK part of the business is in fact slowing its decline. It is only when judged against countries such as France (up 28 per cent) or Belgium (up 25 per cent) that the 2.8 per cent contraction in gross profits stands out. The UK’s last positive quarter is now two years old.

Potential job seekers get justifiably nervous when economic confidence wanes. A recent Financial Times poll of economists predicted output would grow by no more than 1.5 per cent this year, putting it at the bottom of the G7 list. Growth in the eurozone, on the other hand, should reach 2.3 per cent.

Add to that the EU’s warning that the UK should ready itself for life outside the single market and it makes sense that professional, fixed-contract workers are more reluctant to move. Luckily, PageGroup is no longer a UK-focused company. Full year gross profit leapt almost 15 per cent to £712m in 2017, aided in part by the pound’s weakness. Its decision to increase staff should help business next year too.

PageGroup has no debt and is likely to pay a special dividend from its healthy £91m in net cash. It trades at 17 times forward earnings — the same as its peers. But its global mix of business and policy of cash returns make it a standout applicant.

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