Why haven’t UK exports grown faster?

Posted: August 25, 2013 in UK Economy, UK Exports, United Kingdom
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There is good and bad side to a currency falling in value. A cheaper currency is bad news for importers. It is bad news for consumers who want to pay as little as possible for the goods they buy, and for their holidays abroad. A falling currency can be bad news for inflation. But there is a flipside. It can at least hand exporters a massive terms of trade advantage. A country that needs to see exporters drive growth surely needs a cheaper currency. So why is it that the UK seems to have the bad side, but very little of the good side? A new report seems to provide an answer.

Between Q3 2007 and Q1 2009 the effective exchange rate of the pound fell 25 per cent. Inflation rose. Wage inflation didn’t, which left workers worse off. But the UK’s balance of trade in goods and services was largely unchanged. Why didn’t exports rise?

The Office of National Statistics has come up with four possible explanations.

Number one: Global supply chains. The argument runs like this: global trade has become so integrated, with supply chains being so closely in alignment, that it is very hard for a country that sits in a supply chain to suddenly start selling more goods just because prices have fallen. The ONS put it this way: “If multinational companies have an international supply chain structure, which involves moving goods and services between a number of countries before a final product is produced, it is difficult to change this structure in the short term in response to an exchange rate movement.”

Number two: Financial shock and composition of trade. This is a nice simple argument. The UK relies on financial services. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, financial services took the biggest hit, therefore UK imports were adversely affected.

Number three: Price effects. The ONS put it this way: “Domestic exporters – whose goods are relatively less expensive as a result of the depreciation – may choose to increase profit margins on sales to overseas customers, rather than passing on the full benefits of the exchange rate change.” There was another factor: oil. As the pound fell, the price of oil hit UK exporters.

Number four: Effect of downturn on main trading partners. This was surely the main problem for the UK. Sure, the pound was cheap, but our main trading partners – the US and the Eurozone – were in recession or even depression for many of the last few years.

So what can we take from all this, and say about what will happen to the UK next?

It does seem that the main reason why the falling pound did not lead to rising exports was short term in nature. The UK is slowly exporting more outside the Eurozone, but our exports to say the BRICS, were so tiny that it has taken time for the rise in exports to become noticeable. But the fact is that for the last couple of years export growth to China, for example, has exceeded import growth.

Ditto regarding integration within the supply chain. If it is the case that multinationals find it difficult to change their supply chain structure in the short term, this does not mean they cannot change it in the long term. The real hope, however, lies with re-shoring. If it really is the case that companies are beginning to return their manufacturing closer to where their customers are, that will lead to a slow, bit by bit improvement.

In other words, a cheap pound has not benefited UK exporters that much up to now. But that does not mean it won’t do so over the next few years

© Investment & Business News 2013

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