Newspaper headlines this week read that the UK’s balance of trade deficit has widened to £34.8bn, the largest since 2010. And when you exclude services, the trade in goods deficit, at £119.9bn is the largest ever in nominal terms and is also likely to be the largest as a percentage of GDP.
So far so bad. But when you look a little closer, the picture is more mixed. The balance of trade deficit (i.e. on both goods and services) narrowed each quarter of 2014, although the monthly figure did widen in December 2014. In fact the trade in goods deficit increased substantially in December from £9.3bn to £10.2bn.
At first sight the widening of the trade deficit in December might seem surprising, given the dramatic drop in oil prices. Surely, with demand for oil being relatively inelastic, a large cut in oil prices should significantly reduce the expenditure on oil? In fact the reverse happened. The oil deficit in December increased from £598m to £940m. The reason is that oil importing companies have been stockpiling oil while low prices persist. Clearly, this is in anticipation that oil prices will rise again before too long. What we have seen, therefore, is a demand that is elastic in the short run, even though it is relatively inelastic in the medium run.
But the trade deficit is still large. Even when you strip out oil, the deficit in December still rose – from £8.7bn to £9.2bn. There are two main reasons for this deterioration.
The first is a strong pound. The sterling exchange rate index rose by 1.8% in December and a further 0.4% in January. With quantitative easing pushing down the value of the euro and loose monetary policies in China and Australia pushing down the value of their currencies, sterling is set to appreciate further.
The second is continuing weakness in the eurozone and a slowing of growth in some major developing countries, including China. This will continue to dampen the growth in UK exports.
But what of the overall current account? Figures are at present available only up to 2014 Q3, but the picture is bleak (see the chart). As the ONS states:
The current account deficit widened in Q3 2014, to 6.0% of nominal Gross Domestic Product GDP, representing the joint largest deficit since Office for National Statistics (ONS) records began in 1955.
This deterioration in performance can be partly attributed to the recent weakness in the primary income balance [see]. This also reached a record deficit in Q3 2014 of 2.8% of nominal GDP; a figure that can be primarily attributed to a fall in UK residents’ earnings from investment abroad, and broadly stable foreign resident earnings on their investments in the UK
The primary income account captures income flows into and out of the UK economy, as opposed to current transfers (secondary income) from taxes, grants, etc. The large deficit reflects a decline in the holding by UK residents of foreign assets from 92% of GDP in 2008 to 67% by the end of 2014. This, in turn, reflects the poorer rate of return on many of these assets. By contrast, the holdings of UK assets by foreign residents has increased. They have been earning a higher rate of return on these assets than UK residents have on foreign assets. And so, despite UK interest rates having fallen, as the quote above says, foreign residents’ earnings on their holding of UK assets has remained broadly stable.
UK trade deficit last year widest since 2010 BBC News (6/2/15)
UK’s trade deficit widens to 2010 high as consumers take advantage of falling oil The Telegraph, Peter Spence (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit widens to four-year high The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit hits four-year high Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (6/2/15)
Balance of Payments ONS (topic link)
Summary: UK Trade, December 2014 ONS (6/2/15)
Current account, income balance and net international investment position ONS (23/1/15)
Pink Book – Tables ONS
- Distinguish between he current account, the capital account and the financial account of the balance of payments.
- If the overall balance of payments must, by definition, balance, why does it matter if the following are in deficit: (a) trade in goods; (b) the current account; (b) income flows?
- What would cause the balance of trade deficit to narrow?
- Discuss what policies the government could pursue to reduce the size of the current account deficit? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies.
- Why has the sterling exchange rate index been appreciating in recent months?
- What do you think is likely to happen to the sterling exchange rate index in the coming months? Explain.
The latest balance of payments data for the UK show that in the final two quarters of 2013 the current account deficit as a percentage of GDP was the highest ever recorded. In quarter 3 it was 5.6% of GDP and in quarter 4 it was 5.4% of GDP. The previous highest quarterly figures were 5.3% in 1988 Q4 and 5.2% in 1989 Q3. The average current account deficit from 1960 to 2013 has been 1.1% of GDP and from 1980 to 2013 has been 1.6% of GDP.
The current account has four major components: the balance on goods, the balance on services, the balance on current transfers and the balance on income flows (e.g. investment income). The chart below shows the annual balances of each of these components, plus the overall current account balance, from 1960 to 2013.
There are large differences in the balances of these four and the differences seem to be widening. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Traditionally the balance on goods has been negative. In 2013 Q3 the deficit on goods reached a record 7.3% of GDP. It fell back somewhat in Q4 to 6.5%, still significantly above the average since 2000 of 5.5%. With the economy still recovering slowly, it would normally be expected that the trade deficit would be low. However, the high exchange rate has made it difficult for UK exporters to compete. Also with consumer confidence returning, imports are rising, again boosted by the high exchange rate, which makes imports cheaper.
The services balance, by contrast, is typically in surplus. In the final two quarters of 2013, the surpluses were 4.9% and 5.1% of GDP respectively. These compare with an average of 3.3% since 2000. It seems that the service sector, which includes banking, insurance, consultancy, advertising, accountancy, law, etc., is much more able to compete in a global environment.
The balance of current transfers to and from such bodies as the EU and UN have traditionally been negative, although as a proportion of GDP this has gradually widened in recent years. In 2013 the deficit was 1.7% compared with an average of 1.0% since 2000.
The most dramatic change has been in income flows and particularly those from investment. Before the crash in late 2008, the returns to many of the risky investments abroad made by UK financial institutions were very high. Income flows in the 12 months 2007 Q4 to 2008 Q3 averaged a surplus of 2.8% of GDP. They stayed positive, albeit at lower levels, until 2012 Q1, but then became negative as UK institutions reduced their exposure to overseas investments and as earnings in the UK by overseas investors increased. In the last two quarters of 2013, the deficits on income flows were 1.4% and 2.5% of GDP respectively.
How do these figures accord with the Chancellor’s desire to rebalance the economy towards exports? In terms of services, the export performance is good. In terms of goods, however, exports actually fell in the last two quarters from £78.4bn to £74.8bn. Although imports fell too in the final quarter, there is a danger that, with recovery and a high pound, these could begin to rise rapidly
So should the Bank of England attempt to bring the sterling exchange rate down? After all, the exchange rate index has risen from 79.1 in March 2013 to 85.9 in February 2014 (an appreciation of 8.6%). But if it did want to do so, what could it do? The traditional methods of reducing Bank rate and increasing the money supply are not open to it at the present time: Bank rate, at 0.5%, is already about as low as it could go and the Bank has ruled out any further quantitative easing.
The articles consider the latest balance of payments figures and their implications for the economy and for economic policy
UK current account deficit far bigger than forecast The Guardian, Katie Allen (28/3/14)
UK current account deficit near record high at £22.4bn BBC News (28/3/14)
UK current account gap second widest on record The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (28/3/14)
When will the UK pay its way? BBC News, Robert Peston (28/3/14)
Current account deficit crisis creeping up on UK can no longer be ignored The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/3/14)
Balance of Payments, Q4 and annual 2013 ONS (28/3/14)
Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England
- If the current account is in deficit, how is the overall balance of payments in balance (i.e. is in neither deficit nor surplus)?
- If the current account is in record deficit, why has sterling appreciated over recent months? What effect is this appreciation likely to have on the balance on trade in goods and services?
- Why has the balance on investment income deteriorated? In what ways could this be seen as a ‘good thing’?
- To what extent do the balance of payments figures show a rebalancing of the economy in the way the Chancellor would like?
- What could the Bank of England do to bring about a depreciation of sterling?
- What would be the benefits and costs of a depreciation of sterling?
- Why do investors overseas seem so willing to lend to the UK, thereby producing a large surplus on the financial account?