UK trade deficit surges in November

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The UK’s trade position deteriorated sharply in November from the previous month.

The deficit on trade in goods and services was estimated at £4.2bn in November, up from £2.6bn in October.

The widening gap reflects a £3.3bn surge in imports according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

For the three months to the end of November the trade deficit rose a more modest £0.1bn to £35.9bn. That was compared to the three months to August.

For November, the deficit on trading in just goods (and not services) increased to £12.2 billion, widening by £2.3 billion from October.

A £1.4bn rise in machinery and transport equipment imports was the biggest contributor to that figure the ONS said.

In particular the ONS noted a rise in imports of laptops and tablets from China. It also highlighted a rise in transport goods, which includes ships and railway equipment, from countries outside the European Union.

‘Encouraging signs’

Paul Hollingsworth, UK economist at Capital Economics said that while on the face of it the trade figures look disappointing, they contained some “encouraging signs”.

He highlighted the improved growth rate in goods exports in November. For the three months to November that rate improved to 1.1%, from negative 2.7% in October.

Mr Hollingsworth also noted that growth in import volumes slowed.

“Overall, the latest figures suggest that economic growth has maintained pace, and is starting to become better balanced,” he said.

Economists prefer to look at data for trade volumes which strip out the effect of rising prices and currency moves.

The monthly trade data also tends to be volatile and subject to revisions.

Worries over the quality of the trade data prompted regulators to remove its status as a “national statistic” in November 2014. The ONS is currently working on an application to regain that status.

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Reuters

A separate ONS report showed that industrial output rose 2.1% in November, rebounding from a 1.1% decline in October.

The increase reflected the re-opening of a North Sea oil field and an increase in production in the pharmaceuticals industry.

Industrial output figures include mining and quarrying, energy supply, water and waste management industries, as well as the manufacturing sector.

On its own, manufacturing output rose 1.3%, a recovery from October’s 1% contraction.

Meanwhile, the construction sector saw a second monthly decline in output, with a 0.2% fall in November.

“Despite the better than expected industrial production numbers for November, the official data suggest that both industry and construction could have slipped into technical recessions in late 2016, with much depending on December’s data and leaving the economy dependent on services (and most likely, consumers) to drive growth,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit.


Analysis from Jonty Bloom, BBC business correspondent

The latest economic data is a bit of a mixed bag. The construction sector seems to be contracting but industrial production is on the increase, that figure is however quite volatile and the ONS warns it has been affected by the return to production of a North Sea oilfield that was closed for maintenance and a leap in pharmaceutical orders; which can vary a great deal from month to month.

The trade figures, also out today, show that the UK is importing increasing amounts and rising exports are not able to keep pace, thus our trade deficit is widening.

That is to be expected at the moment, although the fall in the pound should reduce imports, as they become more expensive and increase our exports as they become cheaper; that process can take years. In the short term a falling pound just makes already ordered imports more expensive and that increases the trade deficit.

What is missing from today’s figures is however the most important factor, the services sector is the biggest part of the economy, almost 80% of it, and figures on its performance are not out until later this month.

Services are likely to be doing well and that means economic growth towards the end of 2016 almost certainly remained robust.


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