ICAEW chart of the week: UK international trade

As 2021 draws to a close, our chart this week looks back on a rocky couple of years for UK international trade which has endured Brexit complications and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

A column chart showing monthly exports (in orange) and imports (in purple) stacked on top of each other, going from October 2014 to October 2021. The y-axis goes from £0bn to just over £120bn.

Total exports + imports increased from £92bn  in October 2014 to a peak of £123bn in March 2019, fell £113bn the following month before peaking again at £122bn in October 2019. 

Trade fell to a low of £86bn in May 2020, recovered to £111bn in December 2020, fell to £93bn in January 2020 and grew to £104bn in July 2021 with similar monthly totals in September and October 2021.

Our chart of the week illustrates how Brexit and COVID-19 have combined to create a rocky couple of years for UK exports and imports of goods and services, reflecting the trials and tribulations of the Brexit process as well as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on trade since the first lockdown last year.

The monthly trade total (exports + imports) increased from £92bn (£45bn + £47bn) in October 2014 to a peak of £123bn (£57bn + £65bn) in March 2019 at the height of Brexit ‘no deal’ preparations before falling back to £113bn (£54bn + £59bn) the following month before peaking again at £122bn (£61bn + £62bn) in October 2020 ahead of the end of the transition period. Following the introduction of new trading arrangements and the run-down of inventories, trade fell to a low of £86bn (£47bn + £39bn) in May 2020 during the first lockdown before recovering to £111bn (£52bn + £59bn) in December 2020. Trade fell back to £93bn (£45bn + £48bn) in January 2020 before growing back to £104bn (£51bn + £53bn) in July 2021 where it has appeared to stabilise with similar monthly totals in September and October 2021.

The chart provides only a hint of the challenges that have faced both importers and exporters over the past couple of years as they have had to navigate new trading arrangements with our European neighbours just as the pandemic has caused massive disruption across the planet. Imports and exports to EU countries have both fallen, but the EU still remains the UK’s principal trading partner, comprising almost half of the UK’s trade in goods for example.

The stabilisation in trade flows in the last few months for which statistics are available may be a hopeful sign, but with greater customs checks on the imports of goods from the UK coming into force in January, and the continuing evolution of the pandemic, the position is still very uncertain.

This is our last chart of the week for 2021 and so we would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best for a safe and enjoyable Christmas break and for a healthy and prosperous 2022. We look forward to seeing you again in the new year.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK trade in goods

With less than a month to go before the UK leaves the EU Single Market and Customs Union, trade is high on the agenda as negotiations between the UK and the EU go down to the wire.

UK trade in goods in the year to September 2020: exports £338bn & imports £420bn

EU: £153bn & £230bn
Continuity deals: £49bn & £43bn
USA: £53bn & £38bn
China: £32bn & £54bn
Other: £51bn & £54bn

The #icaewchartoftheweek this week is on international trade, illustrating how exports and imports of goods amounted to £338bn and £420bn respectively in the year to 30 September 2020. This excludes £289bn and £181bn of services exports and imports over the same period that are also extremely important, but which are not the principal subjects of the free trade deal currently being negotiated.

The UK’s largest trading partnership for goods is with the members of the EU Customs Union (together with Turkey for non-agricultural products), with the UK exporting £153bn (45% of total goods exports) and importing £230bn (55% of total goods imports). 

This is followed by a further £49bn (15%) of exports to and £43bn (10%) of imports from 52 countries that have trade deals with the EU that the UK has been able to agree replacement trade arrangements with. These include Norway, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Canada and South Africa, with discussions underway to roll-over trade deals with a further 13 countries not included in these numbers, in particular with Singapore and Vietnam.

The UK’s two largest individual trading partners are the USA and China, where the UK will continue to trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. The UK exported £53bn (16%) of goods to the USA and imported £38bn (9%) in the year to September, while it exported £32bn (9%) to China and imported £54bn (13%).

The balance of goods trade, comprising exports of £51bn (15%) and imports of £54bn (13%), is with over 130 other countries and territories where the UK does not have a trade deal in place for after 1 January 2021, including India, Russia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Nigeria.

Both exports and imports of goods have reduced in the year to September 2020 compared with a year previously, with exports down 7% and imports down 18%. The principal driver of the fall is the coronavirus pandemic, although reconfiguration of cross-border supply chains ahead of the end of the transition period may also be a factor.

Although global trade is expected to pick up in 2021 once covid-19 vaccines are widely available, there is significant uncertainty as to the effect on trade of the UK’s departure from the Single Market and Customs Union – with or without a deal. Either way, increased trade frictions are likely to have at least some impact, while the imposition of tariffs in the event of no deal could cause significant additional problems for key sectors such as car manufacturing and agriculture.

The size and closeness of the EU economy means that it will continue to be the most important trading partner for the UK whatever is agreed. If only we knew on what terms we are going to be trading in less than a month’s time and what the major changes that are coming in January will mean for the future!

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.