The UK’s balance on trade continues to be sharply in deficit. At the same time, both manufacturing and overall production are still well below their pre-crisis levels. What is more, with a sterling exchange rate that has appreciated substantially over recent months, UK exports are at an increasing price disadvantage. The hoped-for re-balancing of the economy from debt-financed consumption to investment and exports has not occurred. Investment in the UK remains low relative to that in other major economies (see).
But other developments in the global economy are working in the UK’s favour.
Manufacturing globally is becoming more capital intensive, which reduces the comparative advantage of developing countries with low labour costs.
At the same time, the dividing line between manufacturing and services is becoming more blurred. Manufacturers in developing countries may still produce parts, such as chips or engines, but the design, marketing and sales of the products may take place in developed countries, such as the UK. Indeed, as products become more sophisticated, an increasing amount of value added may occur in developed countries.
The UK may be particularly well-placed in this regard. It can provide many high-end services in IT, business support and financial services to international manufacturers. It may have a comparative advantage in idea-intensive production.
Finally with a higher exchange rate, the UK’s terms of trade have been improving. The downside is that it makes UK exports more expensive in foreign currency terms, but it also makes commodity prices cheaper, which have already fallen in dollar terms, and also the prices of imported component parts. This helps offset the effect of the appreciation of the exchange rate on exports.
The following article by Jeremy Warner considers whether, despite its poor performance in traditional manufacturing, the UK might have hit an economic ‘sweet spot’ in its trade position.
Unbalanced but lucky, Britain hits an economic sweet spot The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (8/9/15)
UK Trade (Excel file) ONS (9/9/15)
(See, for example, Worksheet 1. You can search for longer series using Google advanced search, putting www.ons.gov.uk in the ‘site or domaine’ box and searching for a particular series, using the series identifier found at the top of each column in the Excel file, such as BOKI for balance on trade in goods.)
Exchange rate data Bank of England Statistical Interactive Database
- Explain the difference between the balance on trade, the balance on trade in goods and the balance of payments on current account.
- Why has the UK not experienced a re-balancing of the economy as hope for by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, amongst others?
- What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’?
- What would cause an ‘improvement’ in the terms of trade?
- Are the UK’s terms of trade likely to move in the UK’s favour in the coming months? Explain.
- What current factors are mitigating against a recovery of UK manufacturing exports?
- Is de-industrialisation necessarily a ‘bad thing’?
- Does the development of new capital-intensive technologies in manufacturing mean that the UK could become a net exporter of manufactures? Explain why or why not.