Recruiter Michael Page (MPI) exited the first quarter at a decent clip as it heads into the all-important second and third quarter hiring seasons.

Net fee income (NFI), which is broadly revenue minus job advertising costs, gained 3.6% at constant rates of exchange – a slow-down from the 5.3% NFI gain in the fourth quarter of 2015.

But March delivered PageGroup’s best year-over-year growth rate of the quarter, says chief executive Steve Ingham.

That’s despite an early Easter holiday and uncertainty ahead of a June referendum on EU membership weighing on performance in the UK.

‘We finished the quarter with good momentum and March was our best in terms of the year-on-year growth rate,’ Ingham says.

‘March is a big month every year and we go into it holding our breath whatever the market conditions are.

'Along with June, these are months which are often 20% higher in terms of fees than the average month.

‘March was impacted this year by Easter in most countries because senior decision-makers tend to be on holiday and when that happens hiring decisions are often delayed as a result.’

Problem markets in the quarter were the UK, which represents 26% of NFI, as well as Brazil and China which represent a much smaller share.

NFI performance in the UK fell from 2% growth in the fourth quarter to 0% in the three months to 31 March.

China NFI improved sequentially from minus 7% to minus 5% and Brazil declined 31%.

‘We’ve reduced head count in Brazil to a level where we feel we still have a platform for recovery in that market with around 360 staff there now,’ Ingham says.

‘If we move below that level we would be damaging the opportunity there going forward and the business remains profitable so far.’

NFI growth was 10.3% in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), PageGroup's largest market.

Asia-Pacific was down 2.0% and the Americas was minus 0.6%.

Growth in fee earners, a key measure of management confidence in end-markets, was low at 12, compared to an average increase of 52 per quarter in 2015.

Hiring by PageGroup in 2016 is expected to roughly match growth in NFI, Ingham tells Shares, which itself is difficult to predict because of low visibility in recruitment markets.

Shares in Michael Page trade 0.4% lower at 415p.

Issue Date: 12 Apr 2016