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No accounting for trade

The UK economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2012. A significant factor in the fall was the UK’s balance of trade, which measures the difference between the value of goods and services exported and those imported. The balance of trade deficit rose in 2012 to £36.2 billion or 2.3 per cent of GDP. If we measure only the balance in goods, the deficit was an eye-watering £106.3 billion – a record high for the UK. The balance of trade remains a drag on British growth.

The balance of payments is a record all the flows of money between a country’s residents and the rest of the world. Inflows represent credits on the balance of payments while outflows represent debits. We focus here on perhaps the best-known component of the overall balance of payments: the current account. The current account comprises three separate accounts. First, there is the balance of trade (in goods and services). It records payments for exports (X) and imports (M). Second, there is net income flows. Net income flows are flows of money between countries in the form of wages, profits and interest. Finally, there is current transfers. Current transfers are transfers of money between countries for the purpose of consumption, including, for instance, a transfer payment by the British government to overseas organisations.

Chart 1 presents the UK’s current account. It is based on data from Balance of Payments Q4 2012 dataset published by the Office for National Statistics. The current account deficit in 2012 was £57.7 billion (up from a deficit of £20.2 billion in 2011). This is the equivalent to 3.7 per cent of GDP (up from a deficit of 1.3 per cent in 2011) and the highest current account deficit since 1989 when it reached 4.6 per cent of GDP. Back in 1989, the UK economy was growing by 2.6 per cent having grown by 5.6 per cent in 1988. In 2012, the UK economy grew by just 0.3 per cent following growth of 1.0 per cent in 2011. The mean average rate growth of the UK economy since 1950 is 2.6 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The net income balance, which while remaining in surplus, worsened significantly. From a surplus of £25.9 billion (1.7 per cent of GDP) in 2011, it fell to a surplus of just £1.6 billion (0.1 per cent of GDP) in 2012. This is largely attributable to a decline in the surplus of direct investment income and, in particular, the earnings abroad of non-bank private corporations. Meanwhile, the deficit on current transfers in 2012 was £23.1 billion, up from £22.0 billion in 2011. This is the highest on record. The current transfers deficit with EU institutions rose in 2012 to £10.5 billion, up by £1 billion on 2011.

The balance of trade deficit too worsened in 2012. The deficit rose from £24.1 billion in 2011 (1.6 per cent of GDP) to £36.2 billion in 2012 (2.3 per cent of GDP). The persistent balance of trade deficit continues to occur despite a persistent surplus on the trade in services. In 2012, the balance of trade surplus in services was £70 billion (4.6 per cent of GDP). As Chart 2 shows, the UK now has a record deficit in the balance of trade in goods. This was down from £76.1 billion in 2011 (5 per cent of GDP). (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The last time the UK ran a surplus on the balance of trade in goods was back in 1982. Since 1983, the average UK balance of trade deficit in goods has been the equivalent of 3.67 per cent of GDP. Over the same period, the UK has run a balance of trade surplus in services of 2.37 per cent. The figures point very clearly to the work to be done if we are to see a rebalancing of the industrial composition of the UK economy.

Data
Statistical Bulletin: Balance of Payments, Q4 2012 ONS, 27 March 2013
Balance of Payments, Q4 2012 dataset ONS, 27 March 2013

Articles
Fasten your seat belts – a balance of payments crisis looms Telegraph, Jeremy Warner 27/3/13)
Britain, the world and the end of the free lunch? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (27/3/13)
March of the makers? Balance of payments figures make dismal reading Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/3/13)
Britain’s current account deficit at worst level since 1989 Guardian, Phillip Inman (27/3/13)
Pound fears as current account deficit jumps to near 25 per cent high Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/3/13)
Current account deficit highest since 1989 Financial Times, Claire Jones (27/3/13)

Questions

  1. What does the balance of payments measure?
  2. In explaining what the current account of the balance of payments measures, distinguish between the three principal accounts comprising the current account.
  3. Why might we expect the current account to worsen when economic growth is strongest and improve when economic growth is weakest? Is this what we observe in the UK?
  4. The UK has experienced a persistent current account deficit since the early 1980s. What might be some of the contributory factors to this persistent deficit?
  5. How might we expect a country’s exchange rate to be affected by movements on the balance of payments?
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