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.