Firstly, some positive news; according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics) the number of British firms trading internationally rose by almost 16,000 last year, an increase of 15,900 last year to 340,500, which now represents 14.3% of total non-financial businesses in the UK. Non-financial services made up 53.1% of Britain’s international traders.
On a trade mission to China in November which was focused on the food and drink industry, Government Minister David Rutley was reported to have said the sector’s exports had doubled in the last three years.
Meanwhile in December the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) reported that factory orders for exports had increased for the second month in a row. Production expanded in 15 out of 17 sub-sectors, led by food, drink, tobacco, mechanical engineering and chemicals.
Which countries are UK exporting’s largest trading partners?
Wikipedia has a useful list, showing that the top five of the UK’s trading partners are, in first place “non-EU partners”, then the EU as a whole, followed by Germany, The US and China. Japan comes in at number 17, India at 20 and Saudi Arabia at 23.
While Wikipedia’s information depends heavily on the knowledge and accuracy of its voluntary contributors, some of this is borne out by ONS information in a 2017 paper that also indicates that the UK is seeking to strengthen trade with non-EU countries like China, India, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Nevertheless, the EU countries remained at the top of the list, according to the most recent ONS figures: “In 2016, the EU accounted for 48% of goods exports from the UK, while goods imports from the EU were worth more than imports from the rest of the world combined.”
According to the ONS, in 2016 Exports to the rest of the world were worth £284.1bn while to the EU it was £235.8bn which represents a decline in the share of UK exports of goods and services to the EU from 54% in 2000 to 43% in 2016.
The special relationship with the USA remained important, said the ONS paper, with UK exporting in surplus and valued at £100 billion, “more than twice as much as exports to any other country”.
So what of the future of UK exporting post Brexit?
There are inevitably many uncertainties about the future.
The Financial Times, for example, reported in mid-January that a Whitehall memo had revealed that Britain has so far failed to finalise most trade deals needed to replace the EU’s 40 existing agreements with leading non-EU economies.
Also, in contrast to the optimistic indicators above, the December 2018 IHS Markit’s industry survey on manufacturers reported that while only one in ten were expecting a contraction in the early months of 2019, less than half were expecting output to be higher over the year ahead.
The survey also reported that new export orders had slowed for a second consecutive month with fewer customers from overseas being interested in business, although the consumer goods sector was the one exception.
Perhaps the major factors that will determine UK’s future level of exports are the China/US trade war and China’s growth slowing. Certainly, many UK businesses are spending money on stockpiling parts, raw materials and goods to protect their just in time production processes and in doing so they are not investing in growth, which makes predictions for the future very difficult.