The British government’s attempt to rebalance the UK economy has failed. In 2012, the deficit on the country’s current account (the broadest measure of foreign trade) was larger than in any year since 1990. Britain’s problem is not its trade performance with non-European markets : exports to these are rising strongly and the country runs a small surplus with them. The UK’s problem is the weakness of its exports to the EU, and the huge trade deficit it runs with its EU partners. As the eurozone’s biggest trade partner, the UK is bearing the brunt of the eurozone’s neglect of domestic demand.
The UK’s current account deficit narrowed from 2.3 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 1.3 per cent in 2011, before jumping to an estimated 3.5 per cent of GDP in 2012. There is no doubting the scale of the challenge posed by this deterioration. After all, a key element of the government’s growth strategy is to rebalance the economy away from an excessive dependence on private and public consumption in favour of business investment and exports. It was relying on a positive contribution to economic growth from net trade (exports minus imports) to help offset the impact of fiscal austerity, and to narrow the country’s external deficit.
The UK’s persistently weak trade position is often attributed to British firms’ failure to tap fast growing markets outside Europe. This narrative does not bear scrutiny. The truth is that British exports, and with it chances of rebalancing the economy, are being held back by the country’s trade with the rest of Europe rather than with the supposedly hyper-competitive economies in Asia or the Americas. The value of exports to non-EU markets is growing quickly : between 2006 and 2012 they increased by half (a 65 per cent rise in goods exports and a 35 per cent rise in exports of services). The value of exports to the EU, meanwhile, rose by just 5 per cent over this period (a 5 per cent fall in goods exports and a 23 per cent rise in services). As a result of these trends, the UK earned almost 60 per cent of its foreign currency earnings from non-EU markets in 2012, up from under a half in 2006.
With imports from the EU easily outpacing exports, the trade position with the EU has deteriorated steadily. Despite exports to the EU accounting for little over 14 per cent of GDP in 2012, the UK is estimated to have run a current account deficit with its EU partners equivalent to 4.5 per cent of GDP, double the deficit of five years ago. The value of goods exports to the EU are estimated to have fallen by 5 per cent in 2012, led by declines of 18 per cent to Italy and 12 per cent to Spain. Exports of services to EU markets also fell, as did the returns on British investments in the eurozone, pushing the balance of income with the EU deeper into deficit. By contrast, exports of goods and services to the rest of world rose 5 per cent in 2012, and trade with these markets remained in surplus.
The UK runs a surplus with the non-European world, which accounts for almost three-fifths of its foreign current earnings, but is massively in deficit with the EU, which accounts for just over two-fifths. This is not because the UK is ’competitive’ with the rest of the world and uncompetitive in Europe, but because of the collapse in demand across the EU. UK exports are rising to the rest of the world because demand is rising in the rest of the world, and are falling to EU markets because demand for imports is falling across the eurozone. The reason why the UK’s current account deficit rose sharply in 2012 and those of Italy and Spain fell is not because the latter have improved their ’competitiveness’ more than the UK. Spain’s and Italy’s current account deficits have shrunk because demand in their economies has declined dramatically, leading to a steep fall in imports.
The eurozone’s decision to eschew symmetric adjustment of trade imbalances within the currency union in favour of asymmetric rebalancing (where domestic demand contracts in the deficit countries but there is no offsetting rise in demand in the surplus countries) has serious implications for the UK. Britain was criticised for allowing its currency to fall in value following the onset of the financial crisis in 2007, on the grounds that it constituted a competitive devaluation. But it is the eurozone, not the UK, which is pursuing a mercantilist strategy.
What can the UK do about its increasingly unbalanced trade with the EU ? It would make no sense for the UK to leave the EU. As the data show, membership of the EU has not undermined Britain’s exports to non-European markets. And leaving the union would have little impact on the trade imbalance with European economies ; the UK outside the EU would not be able to erect significant trade barriers against imports from EU countries. Not only is EU membership no obstacle to increased trade with the rest of the world, it is probably facilitating such growth : with the growth of bilateral trade deals in place of multilateral ones, it pays to be part of a heavy-weight negotiating bloc.
The British government could emulate the Italians and the Spanish and tighten fiscal policy by so much that import demand implodes. This would lead to a sharp narrowing of the UK’s trade deficit with the EU and a rising trade surplus with the rest of the world (as the British imported less from non-EU markets). Such a strategy would be politically impossible in the UK. The coalition government would suffer a huge defeat at the next general election and for good reason : this approach would depress investment and push up unemployment, eroding the country’s growth potential.
David Cameron and George Osborne could mount a campaign for more expansionary economic policies across the eurozone. However, even if the British government were not increasingly isolated and resented within the EU, such pleas would fall on deaf ears : the rest of the eurozone could also justifiably argue that they are only doing what the British government has routinely argued that every country must do : cut public spending and ’live within its means’.
The British government should give up on any hope that stronger EU demand for British exports will help rebalance the UK economy. In all likelihood, demand across the eurozone will remain chronically weak for a very long time. Instead, Cameron and Osborne should concentrate all their efforts on boosting domestic economic activity. They should slow the pace of austerity and kick-start a large-scale housing and infrastructure programme. Combined with aggressively expansionary monetary policy – the incoming governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has indicated that monetary policy is set to remain very loose – this should be enough to drive an economic recovery.
If the UK government were to opt for this approach, the British economy would no doubt suck in imports from the rest of the EU, leading to a further widening of the bilateral trade deficit. However, the worsening of the country’s trade position, together with the Bank of England’s more inflationary strategy than the ECB, would almost certainly prompt a fall in the value of sterling. A significant devaluation would probably suffice to halt the rise in Britain’s deficit with the rest of the EU, although the shortfall is unlikely to narrow much while demand remains so weak across the eurozone. Eurozone governments would no doubt accuse the UK of engaging in a competitive devaluation. Given the recent trend in the EU-UK trade balance, such accusations would ring hollow.