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.
…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.