According to the Brexit trade agreement (the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)), trade between the EU and the UK will remain quota and tariff free. ‘Quota free’ means that trade will not be restricted in quantity by the authorities on either side. ‘Tariff free’ means that customs duties will not be collected by the UK authorities on imports from the EU nor by the EU authorities on imports from the UK.
Article ‘GOODS .5: Prohibition of customs duties’ on page 20 of the agreement states that:
Except as otherwise provided for in this Agreement, customs duties on all goods originating in the other Party shall be prohibited.
This free-trade agreement was taken by many people to mean that trade would be unhindered, with no duties being payable. In fact, as many importers and exporters are finding, trade is not as ‘free’ as it was before January 2021. There are four sources of ‘friction’.
Tariffs on goods finished in the UK
This has become a major area of concern for many UK companies. When a good is imported into the UK from outside the EU and then has value added to it by processing, packaging, cleaning, remixing, preserving, refashioning, etc., under ‘rules of origin’ regulations, it can only count as a UK good if sufficient value or weight is added. The proportions vary by product, but generally goods must have approximately 50% UK content (or 80% of the weight of foodstuffs) to qualify for tariff-free access to the EU. For example, for a petrol car, 55% of its value must have been created in either the EU or UK. Thus cars manufactured in the UK which use many parts imported from Japan, China or elsewhere, may not qualify for tariff-free access to the EU.
In other cases, it is simply the question of whether the processing is deemed ‘sufficient’, rather than the imported inputs having a specific weight or value. For example, the grinding of pepper is regarded as a sufficient process and thus ground pepper can be exported from the UK to the EU tariff free. Another example is that of coal briquettes:
The process to transform coal into briquettes (including applying intense pressure) goes beyond the processes listed in ‘insufficient processing’ and so the briquettes can be considered ‘UK originating’ regardless of the originating status of the coal used to produce the briquettes.
In the case of many garments produced in the UK and then sold in retail chains, many of which have branches in both the UK and EU, generally both the weaving and cutting of fabric to make garments, as well as the sewing, must take place in the UK/EU for the garments to be tariff free when exported from the UK to the EU and vice versa.
Precise details of rules of origin are given in the document, The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA): detailed guidance on the rules of origin.
Many UK firms exporting to the EU and EU firms exporting to the UK are finding that their products are now subject to tariffs because of insufficient processing being done in the UK/EU. Indeed, with complex international supply chains, this is a major problem for many importing and exporting companies.
Rules of origin require that firms provide documentation itemising what parts of their goods come from outside the UK/EU. Then it has to be determined whether tariffs will be necessary on the finished product. This is time consuming and is an example of the increase in ‘red tape’ about which many firms are complaining. As the Evening Standard article states:
Exporters have to be able to provide evidence to prove the origin of their products’ ingredients. Next year, they will also have to provide suppliers’ declarations too, and EU officials may demand those retrospectively, so exporters need to have them now.
The increased paperwork and checks add to the costs of trade. Some EU companies are stating that they will no longer export to the UK and some UK companies that they will no longer export to the EU, or will have to set up manufacturing plants or distribution hubs in the EU to handle trade within the EU.
Other companies are adding charges to their products to cover the costs. As the Guardian article states:
“We bought a €47 [£42] shelf from Next for our bathroom,” said Thom Basely, who lives in Marseille. “On the morning it was supposed to be delivered we received an ‘import duty/tax’ demand for over €30, like a ransom note. It came as a complete surprise.”
In evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee (Q640) in May 2018, Sir Jon Thompson, then Chief Executive of HMRC, predicted that leaving the single market would involve approximately 200 million extra customs declarations on each side of the UK/EU border at a cost of £32.50 for each one, giving a total extra cost of approximately £6.5bn on each side of the border for companies trading with Europe. Although this was only an estimate, the extra ‘paperwork’ will represent a substantial cost.
Previously, goods could be imported into the UK without paying VAT in the UK on value added up to that point as VAT had already been collected in the EU. Similarly, goods exported to the EU would already have had VAT paid and hence would only be subject to the tax on additional value added. The UK was part of the EU VAT system and did not have to register for VAT in each EU country.
Now, VAT has to be paid on the goods as they are imported or released from a customs warehouse – similar to a customs duty. This is therefore likely to involve additional administration costs – the same as those with non-EU imports.
The UK is a major exporter of services, including legal, financial, accounting, IT and engineering. It has a positive trade in services balance with the EU, unlike its negative trade in goods balance. Yet, the Brexit deal does not include free trade in services. Some of the barriers to other non-EU countries have been reduced for the UK in the TCA, but UK service providers will still face new barriers which will impose costs. For example, some EU countries will limit the time that businesspeople providing services can stay in their countries to six months in any twelve. Some will not recognise UK qualifications, unlike when the UK was a member of the single market.
The financial services supplied by City of London firms are a major source of export revenue, with about 40% of these revenues coming from the EU. Now outside the single market, these firms have lost their ‘passporting rights’. These allowed such firms to sell their services into the EU without the need for additional regulatory clearance. The alternative now is for such firms to be granted ‘equivalence’ by the EU. This has not yet been negotiated and even if it were, does not cover the full range of financial services. It excludes, for example, banking services such as lending and deposit taking.
Leaving the single market has introduced a range of frictions in trade. These are causing severe problems to some importers and exporters in the short term. Some EU goods are now unavailable in the UK or only so at significantly higher prices. Some exporters are finding that the frictions are too great to make their exports profitable. However, it remains to be seen how quickly accounting and logistical systems can adjust to improve trade flows between the UK and the EU.
But some of these frictions, as itemised above, will remain. According to the law of comparative advantage, these restrictions on trade will lead to a loss of GDP. And these losses will not be spread evenly throughout the UK economy: firms and their employees which rely heavily on UK–EU trade will be particularly hard hit.
- EU firms refuse UK deliveries over Brexit tax changes
BBC News, Robert Plummer (5/1/21)
- Brexit trade problems: what’s gone wrong and can it be fixed?
The Conversation, Billy Melo Araujo (14/1/21)
- Brexit: parcels of grief
Turbulent Times, Richard North (8/1/21)
- UK retailers stumped by post-Brexit trade deal with EU
Financial Times, Jonathan Eley and Daniel Thomas (7/1/21)
- Pan-EU food supply chains hit by Brexit trade deal
Financial Times, Peter Foster, Arthur Beesley and Sam Fleming (6/1/21)
- Customers in Europe hit by post-Brexit charges when buying from UK
The Guardian, Jon Henley (7/1/21)
- UK importers brace for ‘disaster’ as new Brexit customs checks loom
The Guardian, Joanna Partridge (7/2/21)
- Brexit: The reality dawns
BBC News, Scotland, Douglas Fraser (8/1/21)
- Post-Brexit customs systems not fit for purpose, say meat exporters
BBC News, Simon Jack (15/1/21)
- Brexit: How much disruption has there been so far?
BBC News, Reality Check team (1/2/21)
- Baffling Brexit rules threaten export chaos, Gove is warned
The Observer, Toby Helm (10/1/21)
- Shock Brexit charges are hurting us, say small British businesses
The Observer, Toby Helm and Michael Savage (17/1/21)
- ‘A Brexit nightmare’: the British businesses being pushed to breaking point
The Observer, Toby Helm (24/1/21)
- Debenhams closes online business in Ireland as 50 major UK retailers face EU tariffs
ITV News, Joel Hills (7/1/21)
- The Brexit deal is being celebrated as though it removes all tariffs. It doesn’t
Prospect, Sam Lowe (8/1/21)
- As Marks and Spencer warns of Brexit nightmare, what are these Rules of Origin red tape issues?
Evening Standard, Jim Armitage (9/1/21)
- UK VAT after the transitional period
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (31/12/20)
- The Brexit deal and the services sector
UK in a Changing Europe, Sarah Hall (28/12/20)
- What does the Brexit trade deal mean for financial services?
UK in a Changing Europe, Sarah Hall (27/12/20)
- Explain what is meant by ‘rules of origin’.
- If something is imported to the UK from outside the UK and then is refashioned in the UK and exported to the EU but, according to the rules of origin has insufficient value added in the UK, does this mean that such as good will be subject to tariffs twice? Explain.
- Are tariffs exactly the same as customs duties? Is the distinction made in the Guardian article a correct one?
- Is it in the nature of a free-trade deal that it is not the same as a single-market arrangement?
- Find out what arrangement Switzerland has with the EU. How does it differ from the UK/EU trade deal?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Swiss/EU agreement over the UK/EU one?
- Are the frictions in UK–EU trade likely to diminish over time? Explain.
- Find out what barriers to trade in services now exist between the UK and EU. How damaging are they to UK services exports?
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?
The UK’s trade deficit narrowed in March to £2.74bn from £2.95bn in February. The goods deficit fell just slightly to £8.56bn from £8.59bn, but the services surplus rose more substantially to £5.83bn from £5.64bn.
So was this a sign of the UK economy’s relative weakness holding back the demand for imports? Or was it a sign of a recovering export sector, especially in services?
And what of the coming months? What will be the effect of a growing crisis in the eurozone on (a) the sterling exchange rate, (b) the rate of economic growth outside the UK and (c) UK economic growth? And what will be the effect of these on the demand for imports and exports and on the trade balance? The following articles examine the issues.
(For a PowerPoint of the above chart, click on the following link: Balance of trade)
UK goods trade deficit stable as exports to non-EU countries rebound Reuters (15/5/12)
UK trade deficit narrows in March to £2.7bn BBC News (15/5/12)
Exports close UK trade deficit Guardian (15/5/12)
First trade surplus in cars since 1976 The Telegraph, Emma Rowley (15/5/12)
UK trade deficit narrows in March Fresh Business Thinking, Marcus Leach (15/5/12)
UK Trade, March 2012 ONS Release (15/5/12)
- Distinguish between the balance on trade in goods, the balance of trade and the balance on current account.
- Why did the UK’s trade deficit fall in March 2012?
- Why did the UK experience its first trade surplus in cars since 1976?
- What is likely to happen to the UK’s balance of trade in the coming months? How is the income elasticity of demand for UK exports and imports relevant to the answer?
- What has been happening recently to the sterling exchange rate? How will this impact on the UK’s balance of trade? How will the size of this impact depend on the price elasticity of demand and supply for imports and exports?