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.
Germany is the world’s fourth largest economy and Europe’s largest. Part of its strength has come from its exports, which last year increased by 11.4% to $1.3 trillion – the first time it had ever exceed the $1 trillion mark. Germany, however, is by no means the country with the largest export sector – that mantle was taken from them by China, whose exports rose 20.3% last year to reach $1.9 trillion.
At the same time as exports have been rising from Germany, imports have also increased, showing a recovery in domestic demand as well. Despite this, Germany’s foreign trade surplus increased slightly to €158.1 billion (from €154.9 billion).
However, in the last month of 2011, its export growth did slow – the fastest drop in nearly 3 years – and that is expected to signal the trend for 2012. As the eurozone debt crisis continues to cause problems, German exports have been forecast to grow by only 2% this year, with economic growth expected to be as low as 0.7%. This is a marked change from last year, where the Germany economy grew by some 3%. Help for the eurozone is unlikely to come form Europe’s second largest economy, France, where growth in the first 3 months of 2012 is expected to be zero and figures have shown a widening trade deficit, with issues of competitiveness at the forefront. The following articles look at Germany’s prowess in the export market and the likely developments over the coming year.
German exports drop is steepest in nearly 3 years Reuters (8/2/12)
German exports set record of a trillion euros in 2011 BBC News (8/2/12)
German exports broke euro1 trillion mark in 2011 The Associated Press (8/2/12)
Surprise drop in German industrial output Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (7/2/12)
French trade deficit hits high, competitiveness at issue Reuters (7/2/12)
French trade deficit casts shadow on campaign Financial Times, Hugh Carnegy (7/2/12)
German exports fall at fastest rate in three years, sparks fears over Europe’s bulwark economy Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (8/2/12)
- What is meant by a trade surplus?
- Briefly examine some of the factors that may have contributed to Germany’s rising exports throughout 2011.
- How has the eurozone debt crisis impacted the Germany economy and in particular the export sector?
- The articles that look at France refer to a growing trade deficit, with competitiveness being a key issue. What is meant by competitiveness and why is the French economy suffering from a lack of it?
- Does France’s membership of a single currency reduce its ability to tackle its competitiveness issues?
- Why is German growth expected to remain sluggish throughout 2012? Given that Germany is a member of the eurozone, what government policies are open to the government to boost economic growth?
- China has overtaken Germany as the largest exporter, with growth of 20.3% in 2011. What factors have allowed Chinese exports to grow so quickly?
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of the total value of goods and services produced in the domestic economy. It gives us an idea about whether national output is growing or falling and by how much. A recession represents a period of 2 consecutive quarters where economic growth is negative. Following the quarters of declining growth, the UK economy slowly began to pick up, but in the final quarter of 2010, economic growth once again turned negative. Data first showed a decline of 0.5%, which was then revised down to 0.6%. However, the most recent data from the ONS has put the decline in economic growth back to just 0.5% and the snow we experienced is supposedly to blame. Still a decline, but not as much as previously thought.
What does this mean for the economy? It might be better than previously thought, but it does little to change the economic outlook for the economy. Furthermore, the UK’s position remains relatively weak compared to other nations. As Chris Williamson from Markit said:
“The decline [in growth] overstates the weakness in the economy, reflecting the bad weather at the end of last year, but is nevertheless still a dire reading compared to the UK’s peers.”
The UK also saw a declining trade balance in the final quarter of 2010 to £27bn, showing that the UK was importing more than it was exporting. This was the second biggest deficit since the second quarter of 2009. Whilst the data for growth is a little better, the key for the UK economy will be what happens in Q1 of 2011, especially given that inflation is so far above the target. In order to get inflation back to its 2% target, interest rates need to rise, but this may put the economic recovery in jeopardy. The key is likely to be confidence. If confidence returns to the economy, aggregate demand may begin to rise and put the economy back on track to achieve its 1.5% forecast rate of growth.
UK GDP less bad than forecast at end-2010, Q1 key Reuters (29/3/11)
UK GDP figures show smaller fall BBC News (29/3/11)
UK GDP shrinks by less than expected: reaction Telegraph (29/3/11)
UK growth figures: what the economists say Guardian (29/3/11)
Disposable income falls by 0.8% The Press Association (29/3/11)
British economy shrank 0.5% in fourth quarter Associated Press (29/3/11)
UK GDP figures revised higher The Economy News (29/3/11)
- What is GDP? Is it a good measure of the standard of living in a country?
- To what extent does the revised figure change the economic outlook for the UK economy?
- How do you think the Monetary Policy Committee will be affected in their decision on changing interest rates, given this new GDP data?
- What factors are worsening the UK’s relative to other countries who also suffered from the recession?
- How were financial and currency markets affected by the revised GDP data? Was it expected?
Public finances aren’t in a great state – that’s no secret. However, what is remaining a secret is exactly how and when the main political parties intend to reduce the budget deficit. The UK’s credit-rating is under pressure and with the election approaching, we can expect government finances to come under increasing scrutiny. Whichever party forms the government will face the unenviable task of having to pull Britain out of a recession, while trying to reduce: 1) a forecast budget deficit for 2009/10 of £167 billion (about 13% of GDP), 2) a government debt of 68.6% of GDP, with 3) £73.8 billion alone going on interest payments and 4) a trade deficit of £8 billion. Who would be a politician?!
Phoney deficit wars BBC News, Stephanomics (26/3/10)
- What is the structural deficit?
- A fall in government spending may improve public finances, but why may it adversely affect the UK’s recovery?
- Outline the main proposals by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to tackle public finances. Are any of their proposals viable?
- Why is the UK’s credit-rating under pressure? If the UK is down-graded, what could this mean?
Is there finally cause to celebrate? Government borrowing is lower than expected. Initially, public sector net borrowing for 2009-2010 was forecast in the Pre-budget Report to be £178bn, but official public figures have reduced this to £170 bn. The fall in government revenues has not been as big as predicted and as a result, borrowing this year is likely to be between £5bn and £10bn less than expected. But, let’s not crack open the champagne quite yet, as February’s figures for public sector net borrowing are still about 41% higher in 2010 than in the same month last year.
Whilst the UK is predicted to under-shoot its public-sector net cash requirement made in the Pre-Budget Report for 2009-2010, government borrowing remains at a record high and the level of the deficit is still a worrying 12% of GDP. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the European Commission wants the UK to bring its deficit down faster than the current government plans – and the Commission is not alone. There is considerable debate at the moment between those who want the government to bring the deficit down quicker to appease the market and those who want the government to start taking strong measures only when the recovery is well established. Their fear, very much in the Keynesian school, is that cutting too soon, by reducing aggregate demand, would push the economy back into recession.
If government spending is to be restrained, can we rely on export-lead growth? The fall in the value of our currency over the past two years should have meant a boost for exports. With a weaker pound, export growth was expected to be strong and allow us to export our way out of recession. See the news blog Expecting too much from exports. However, with figures in January 2010 showing the biggest trade deficit since August 2008 (£3.8bn) and with the volume of exports down by 8%, this may not be the case. Whilst the credit rating of the UK remains at AAA, experts say that the government should be aiming to reduce the deficit more quickly in order to retain this rating. So, although there is some good news (government borrowing will only be £170bn!) and exports are likely to increase as the global economy recovers from recession, significant problems in the UK economy still remain.
Row over leaked EU deficit report AFP news (17/3/10)
Government borrowing less than forecast BBC News (18/3/10)
Borrowing update cheers Treasury Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/3/10)
UK trade deficit widens to biggest in 17 months BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (9/3/10)
Government borrowing: what the economists say Guardian (18/3/10)
Darling to use higher revenues to cut debt Financial Times, Chris Giles and Jean Eaglesham (19/3/10)
Public sector finances. February 2010 Office for National Statistics
- Why have government revenues been falling?
- What is the difference between the public-sector net cash requirement and public-sector debt?
- Why is a weak pound good for exports?
- As the global economy recovers, UK exports should begin to rise. Illustrate this idea with a circular flow of income diagram for the UK and the rest of the world.
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against reducing the government deficit now?
- Should the Treasury be celebrating these latest figures, or is the UK economy still in a bad way?