International trade

A £500m rise in cars shipped abroad fails to ease prospects of huge UK trade deficit in third quarter fueled by strong pound plus eurozone woes and declining oil industry. The significant improvement seen in Q2 now considered as “only temporary”…

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Car exports cut monthly UK trade deficit but quarterly gap is growing” was written by Phillip Inman Economics correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 9th October 2015 11.47 UTC

A rise in car exports helped improve Britain’s trade deficit in August, according to official figures.

The monthly shortfall in the trade balance for goods narrowed to £3.3bn from £4.4bn in July. However, the UK was still heading for a huge deficit in the third quarter of the year after an upward revision to July’s shortfall.

Paul Hollingsworth, UK economist at Capital Economics, said: “Even if the trade deficit held steady in September, this would still leave the deficit in the third quarter as a whole at around £11bn, far higher than the £3.5bn deficit recorded in the second quarter.”

He said this suggests that net trade is probably making “a significant negative contribution to GDP” at the moment.

Hollingsworth warned that the strong pound and weakness in demand overseas as the US economy stuttered and the eurozone remained in the doldrums meant the government’s hopes of a significant rebalancing towards manufacturing exports would be dashed in the near term.

Alongside the £500m rise in car exports in August, the chemicals industry sent more of its production to the US, the ONS said. Total goods exports increased by 3.5% to £23.6bn in August 2015 from £22.8bn in July 2015.

But this positive news was offset by the continued decline in Britain’s oil industry, which has been a major factor holding back progress this year.

Lower production and the lower oil price have dented exports, and though oil imports are likewise cheaper, they continue to rise in volume.

The mothballing and subsequent closure of the Redcar steel plant could also have had an impact as the export of basic materials dived in August by more than 10%.

The services sector recorded an improvement in its trade balance, but the ONS pointed out that the UK continued to rely heavily on the financial services industry to pay its way in the world.

Figures for the second quarter showed that the surplus on trade in services was £22.8bn, of which almost half – £10.1bn – was contributed by banks, insurers and the fund management industry.

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the narrowing of the deficit in August was welcome, but taking the July and August figures together pointed towards a deterioration.

“This confirms our earlier assessment that the significant improvement seen in the second quarter was only temporary.

“The large trade deficit remains a major national problem. This is particularly true when we consider that other areas of our current account, notably the income balance, remain statistically insignificant.”

Kern urged the government to adopt measures that will “secure a long-term improvement in our trading position”.

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USA 

Financial markets focused on the more downbeat indicators of construction and industrial production that some say might be a sign that the UK economy may be losing steam along with its largest trading partner the eurozone…

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Official data points to loss of momentum in UK economy” was written by Katie Allen, for The Guardian on Friday 9th January 2015 16.30 UTC

Further evidence of a slowing British economy came on Friday as official figures showed a surprise drop in construction in November and falling industrial output as oil and gas output declined sharply.

But the data showed a bounceback in factory output that buoyed hopes for the manufacturing sector and good news on exports suggested UK companies could weather troubles in their biggest trading partner, the eurozone.

Financial markets focused on the more downbeat indicators, taking them as the latest evidence the economy lost steam in the final months of 2014. The pound lost ground against the dollar as traders bet the Bank of England would be in no hurry to raise interest rates from their record low, given the mixed signals on the economy.

“Disappointing official data are adding to survey evidence which indicate that the rate of UK economic growth slowed towards the end of last year,” said Chris Williamson, chief economist at data analysts Markit.

“Looking at all of the official statistics and survey evidence currently available, the data collectively point to the economy growing 0.5% in the fourth quarter, down from 0.7% in the third quarter,” he added.

While economists said it was too soon to say whether the slowdown at the end of the year continued into 2015, the latest figures will be unwelcome to the Conservatives as they seek to convince voters that the recovery remains on track.

“On balance, there is further evidence that UK growth is slowing as we head towards the general election,” said Simon Wells, chief UK economist at HSBC.

Among the bright spots for the economy in a clutch of reports from the Office for National Statistics was the news that manufacturing output rose by 0.7% in November, reversing October’s fall and beating economists’ expectations for growth of just 0.3%. On the year, output was up 2.7%.

But the wider industrial sector which also includes utilities, mining and oil and gas production, fell 0.1%. That drop was driven largely by a 5.5% fall in oil and gas output. The ONS said the weakness was partly down to maintenance work at two North Sea oil fields.

Respected thinktank the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said following the latest industrial production numbers it estimated growth slowed to 0.6% in the final three months of last year, after 0.7% in the three months to November 2014.

Separate official figures from the construction sector showed output fell by 2.0% on the month in November, defying economists’ forecasts for growth and contrasting with surveys of the sector.

The news on trade was more encouraging, however, as the ONS reported the narrowest trade deficit since June 2013.

The manufacturing sector is still not back to its pre-crisis strength and exports have not grown as fast as the government would have hoped. Progress has been slow in the government’s push to rebalance the economy away from overdependence on domestic demand, but some economists are predicting a strong 2015 for manufacturing.

A drop in oil prices to their lowest level in more than five years has buoyed hopes for the sector. Maeve Johnston at the thinktank Capital Economics cautioned it was far from certain oil prices will remain so low, but the fall should help “reinvigorate the recovery”.

“Indeed, if low oil prices are sustained, it should greatly reduce costs for the manufacturing sector, providing some welcome support over 2015. And sustained low oil prices would also ensure that the improvement in the trade deficit proves to be more than a flash in the pan,” she said.

The trade numbers beat expectations as the ONS reported the goods trade gap narrowed by £1bn to £8.8bn in November, as exports edged down but imports fell faster. Economists had forecast a £9.4bn gap. The less erratic figures for the three months to November showed exports grew by £2bn and imports shrank by £0.5bn.

The details showed exporters continued to benefit from targeting markets beyond the deflation-hit eurozone. Exports to countries outside the European Union increased by £2.1bn, or 6.0%, in the three months to November from the previous three months. Exports to the EU decreased by £0.1bn, or 0.3%. At the same time, the UK recorded its largest ever deficit with Germany, reflecting a decrease in exports and a slight increase in imports.

The trade gap for goods and services taken together fell to its lowest since June 2013, at £1.4bn in November.

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With its linked trade and innovation deficits, the UK seems as unprepared for a currency war as it was for real war in 1939. Countries are trying to export deflation somewhere else, using currency manipulation to do so…

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “UK looks ill-prepared if a global currency war breaks out” was written by Larry Elliott economics editor, for The Guardian on Sunday 17th November 2013 19.41 UTC

Rumours of war are in the air. Currency war, that is. The US treasury has forged an alliance with Brussels to attack Germany’s beggar-thy-neighbour approach to the rest of the eurozone. Last week the Czech government said it would defend its economy by driving down the value of  the koruna, following the aggressively interventionist example of  Japan and Switzerland.

It’s not hard to see why the atmosphere is becoming less cordial. This is a low growth world marked by over-capacity. Wages are under downward pressure and this is leading to ever-stronger deflationary pressure. A lack of international policy co-operation means that countries are trying to export deflation somewhere else, using currency manipulation to do so.

If a full-scale currency war does break out Britain looks as ill-prepared as it was for a military fight in 1939. We like to think of ourselves as a nation of buccaneering traders but only 16% of small and medium enterprises, with a turnover of over £20m, are actually exporting. We like to think of ourselves as the nation of innovators, yet as Richard Jones, of Sheffield University, notes, the UK is a less research and development intensive country than it was 30 years ago, and it lags well behind most of its rivals. The UK has linked trade and innovation deficits.

Jones, in a paper for the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, examines in detail how during the past 30 years the UK’s corporate laboratories have vanished and how big R&D spenders such as ICI and GEC switched from being companies that thought about long-term investment to ones where the prevailing doctrine was to return the money spent on R&D to shareholders.

Those in charge of UK manufacturing companies became more interested in the next bid, the next deal and the next set of quarterly results than in developing new product ranges.

The consequences of decades of neglect of the country’s productive base and an over-reliance on North Sea oil and financial services are now glaringly apparent. In the past, recessions have ended with the current account broadly in balance. This recovery starts with a current account deficit of more than 3%  of national output.

This is despite a fall of 20% in the value of the pound between 2007 and 2013, which in theory should have boosted exports. In reality, exports grew by 0.4% a year between early 2009 and the start of 2013, compared with 1% a year in the previous decade.

Ministers have a pat answer when quizzed about the poor performance of exports. It is, they say, the result of geography. More than 40% of UK exports go to the eurozone, where growth is weak and demand for imports has collapsed. So the impact of sterling’s depreciation has been blunted.

This view is not shared by the Bank of England. While admitting that the global recovery is patchy, the bank noted in its February inflation report that “the relative weakness of UK exports does not reflect particular weakness in its major trading partners”. It concluded that some other explanation was needed “to explain the disappointing performance of UK exports”, and found it in a sharp drop in exports of financial services and the tendency of UK firms to use a cheaper pound to boost profits rather than increase market share. The decline in exports from the City since the crash highlights the risks for Britain of the “eggs in one basket” approach.

As Ken Coutts and Bob Rowthorn note in a paper on the prospects for the balance of payments, the UK has gone from being a country that had a 10% of GDP surplus in trade in manufactures in 1950 to running a 4% of GDP deficit by 2011. North Sea oil and gas were in decline, so energy added to the deficit by 1.3% of GDP. Food and government transfers to overseas bodies such as the EU, World Bank and UN were the other big debits.

On the other side of the ledger there were three sources of surpluses: financial services and insurance (3.1% of GDP); other knowledge-intensive services, which include law, consultancy and IT (2.5% of GDP); and investment income (1.1% of GDP). Once all the debits and credits were totted up Britain had a current account deficit of 1.9% of national income. This rose to 4% of GDP in 2012.

The recession has taken a heavy toll on two of the surplus sectors. Investment income has turned negative, and global demand for financial services has fallen. This has affected the UK more than the other big global providers of financial services, the US and EU.

According to the Bank of England, “This could reflect lower demand for UK financial services in general, or a particularly sharp fall in demand for those financial products in which the UK specialised prior to the crisis.” This is a polite way of saying that no one any longer wants what Lord Turner once dubbed the City’s “socially useless” products.

Coutts and Rowthorn model what happens to the current account using assumptions for growth in the UK domestic economy and world trade, the level of UK competitiveness, oil prices, North Sea oil and gas production, and returns on financial assets.

The baseline projection is that the current account is 3% of GDP in 2022. Using a slightly more pessimistic assumption, the deficit swells to 5% of GDP. As the authors note: “A deficit of this magnitude would be a cause for serious alarm.”

It certainly would be. The outgoing trade and investment minister, Lord Green, told a conference in the City to mark export week that there was no guarantee the rest of the world would be prepared to finance deficits of this size for ever. The government has a target for raising exports to £1tn a year by 2020 – which will require them to grow by 9% a year. (The average since 2012 has been 5%.)

We have heard the “export or die” message many times in the past, to little effect it has to be said. It is not impossible to improve Britain’s export performance, though doing so with the current economic model is a pipe dream. It will require nurturing manufacturing, knowledge-based services and those bits of the financial services sector for which there is long-term demand.

Britain, Jones says, “needs to build a new developmental state, a state that once again takes responsibility for large-scale technological innovation as the basis for sustainable growth and prosperity”. Amen to that. If a currency war is brewing, we need the can-do spirit of 1940, not the head-in-the-sands approach of 1938.

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