UK trade: January 2021

Total value of UK exports and imports of goods and services in current prices, chained volume measures and implied deflators.

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Dyddiad y datganiad:
12 March 2021

Cyhoeddiad nesaf:
13 April 2021

1. Main points

  • Exports of goods, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, fell by £5.3 billion (19.3%) in January 2021, because of a £5.6 billion (40.7%) fall in exports to the EU.

  • Imports of goods, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, fell by £8.9 billion (21.6%) in January 2021, driven by a £6.6 billion (28.8%) fall in imports from the EU.

  • Falling imports of goods, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, and chemicals from the EU in January 2021, particularly in imports of cars and medicinal and pharmaceutical products.

  • In both current price and chained volume measures, the January 2021 monthly fall in goods imports and exports are the largest monthly falls since records began in January 1997.

  • Total imports of goods from non-EU countries, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, fell by £2.4 billion (12.7%) in January 2021 while exports increased by £0.2 billion (1.7%).

  • The total trade deficit for January 2021, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £3.7 billion to £1.9 billion; imports decreased by £9.2 billion (17.6%) and exports decreased by £5.5 billion (11.8%).

  • The total trade deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £6.7 billion to £12.8 billion in the three months to January 2021; imports increased by £2.4 billion (1.7%), while exports decreased by £4.3 billion (3.1%).

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Trade has not been typical in recent months and, because of the practical challenges and temporary factors outlined in Section 3, we would encourage users to apply caution when making short-term comparisons of trade movements.

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3. Potential factors contributing to the fall in January trade in goods

In this month's bulletin we focus heavily on monthly trends, however, it should be noted that monthly data are erratic and small movements in these series should be treated with caution. The data in this bulletin for January 2021 are the first to include trade after the EU exit transition period ended on 31 December. In addition to the changes facing the UK after the transition period ended, the UK went into another national lockdown at the beginning of January 2021.

We recently published more information on the Impact of the coronavirus and EU exit on the collection and compilation of UK trade statistics .

November and December 2020 saw increasing imports and exports of goods, particularly in machinery and transport equipment and chemicals. These increases were consistent with potential stockpiling of goods from the EU in preparation for the end of the EU exit transition period. UK goods imports from the EU also peaked in the weeks approaching previous Brexit deadlines in March and October 2019.

All of these are potential contributing factors to the fall in January trade in goods. In addition, some of the EU export data will become available slightly more slowly under the new system. There will be small difference in January export estimates although this is unlikely to influence the trend of the movements in January.

While the month-on-month trade movements show falls for January, our faster indicators data help give further insight of the weekly and fortnightly movements throughout January. External evidence suggests some of the slower trade for goods in early January 2021 could be attributable to disruption caused by the end of the transition period. In addition, we also need to consider the stronger November and December stockpiling trade figures associated with some commodities and therefore may expect to see an unwinding of stocks from these previous months.

Despite the slow start for trade in January 2021, data from the Business insights and impact on the UK economy suggests that importing and exporting began to increase towards the end of January. The proportion of businesses reporting that they were unable to export decreased by 5.4 percentage points between the reporting periods 11 January to 24 January and 25 January to 2 February. Similarly, the proportion of businesses reporting they were unable to import decreased by 3.0 percentage points between the same reporting periods.

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4. Monthly trade analysis

Falling imports of goods were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, and chemicals from the EU in January 2021. Total imports of machinery and transport equipment fell by £3.3 billion (21.9%) in January 2021, driven by a £2.6 billion (30.0%) fall in imports from the EU (Figure 2). The falls in imports of machinery and transport equipment from the EU were driven by a £1.0 billion (39.0%) fall in imports of cars.

Multiple factors may have contributed to this decrease in imports of cars in January, including:

  • disruption in the lead up to the end of the UK-EU transition period

  • stockpiling in the lead up to the end of the UK-EU transition period

  • the ongoing impact of the pandemic including reduced demand associated with the national lockdown in the UK

  • global supply chain issues

The decline in exports of cars is likely also linked to a fall in demand and reduced car manufacturing. Car manufacturing for export markets fell by 29.1% in January 2021 compared with January 2020, representing the 17th month of decline in UK outputs. This reduction in manufacturing, because of the reduction in demand, had a knock-on effect for the export of cars. Exports decreased by £0.2 billion in January 2021 as 80.6% of cars built in the UK were for the export market, down from 82.7% in January 2020. The decrease in exports of cars to EU countries has been affected most, particularly exports to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. This may be associated with lockdown measures in place in these countries tightening at the end of December in response to the risk of the spread of new COVID variants.

Imports and exports of chemicals fell by £1.7 billion (30.1%) and £1.2 billion (25.2%) respectively in January 2021 (Figure 2). The largest falls in imports and exports were observed in medicinal and pharmaceutical products traded with EU countries, which reduced by £1.1 billion (57.3%) and £0.6 billion (62.6%). Imports from the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium accounted for 76.2% of the UK's total decrease in imports of chemicals in January 2021.

The decrease in exports of pharmaceutical products to EU countries is likely a consequence of stockpiling in preparation for the end of the EU transition period by the UK's largest medicinal and pharmaceutical product export partners. Most notably UK exports of medicinal and pharmaceutical products to Ireland increased by 224% in the three months to December 2020 and increased by 283% compared with the same period in 2019. This coupled with reported difficulties for EU countries accessing the primarily UK produced AstraZeneca vaccine may have led to this reduction in exports to the EU.

In contrast to the falling exports to the EU, exports of medicines and pharmaceutical products to non-EU countries increased by £0.3 billion in January 2021. A large proportion of this is represented by increasing exports to China and Japan in this period. This increase is potentially an early effect of the UK-Singapore trade agreement, which came into effect on 1 January 2021. This trade agreement provides lower non-tariff barriers for the trade of pharmaceuticals and medical devices; it may serve to facilitate increasing trade with the UK's largest trading partners in the region, China and Japan.

Imports of miscellaneous manufactures, which includes clothing, fell by £1.9 billion (28.3%) in January 2021. Imports of clothing from non-EU countries fell by £0.2 billion (34.8%) to £0.8 billion: the same value as seen at the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in April 2020. This reduction is because of a drop in imports of clothing from China in January 2021, which is likely due to a drop in UK retail sales of clothing because of the national lockdown in place in response to rising COVID-19 cases, coupled with stockpiling of clothing from towards the end of 2020. This is supported by the Business insights and impacts on the economy (BICS) data, which show how in early October 14.4% of wholesale and retail trade businesses had stock levels higher than normal, increasing to 22.1% by mid-December 2020.

Exports of food and live animals to the EU, which includes seafood and fish, have decreased by £0.7 billion (63.6%) in January 2021. This is potentially because of stricter checks and certifications implemented by the EU at the end of the transition period. The Scottish Seafood Association says exports to the EU are being hit by "red tape" delays between Scotland and France. The consignment sign off is reportedly taking six times longer, and previously overnight transit of goods to France is reportedly now taking three days.

Figure 2: Falling imports were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and chemicals from the EU in January 2021

Changes in imports and exports, by goods commodity group, excluding unspecified goods, January 2021 compared with December 2020, EU and non-EU

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Imports of services decreased 2% in January 2021, while exports of services decreased a lesser 1%. For both exports and imports, main accounts that are decreasing are travel, other business services and transport. Figures are forecast using a combination of sources including Index of Services (IOS), International Passenger Survey (IPS) and Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey (BICS), and are therefore likely to be revised. Further data on trade in services will be published at a later date. Please see Section 9: Measuring the data for more information.

The total trade deficit for January 2021, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £3.7 billion to £1.9 billion. This was due to imports decreasing by £9.2 billion and exports decreasing by a lesser £5.5 billion.

Removing the effect of inflation, trade in goods commodities largely followed the same trend as current prices (CP). An exception to this was trade in fuels, which saw price increases in January following an erratic 2020 picture. In January 2021 export and import fuel prices increased 7.4% and 5.3% respectively on the month, however fuel prices remain lower than their pre-pandemic level and are still 20.3% and 14.2% lower respectively than January 2020.

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5. Total trade and three-monthly movements

The total trade deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £6.7 billion to £12.8 billion in the three months to January 2021 (Figure 3). The widening of the total trade deficit was because imports increased by £2.4 billion (1.7%), while exports decreased by £4.3 billion (3.1%).

The underlying trade in goods deficit widened by £4.0 billion in the three months to January 2021 (Table 2). While January 2021 saw falls in imports and exports these were offset by increasing imports and exports in November and December 2020. Goods imports increased by £4.9 billion (4.4%), while goods exports increased by £0.8 billion (1.1%) in the three months to January 2021.

Increases in trade in goods imports were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and chemicals. There was evidence of stockpiling for these commodities at the end of 2020, ahead of the end of the EU exit transition period, and the falls seen in the month of January 2021 are likely because of trade being brought forward. Imports of goods from the EU were stockpiled in November and December 2020, with decreases in imports in January 2021 being consistent with an unwinding of stockpiling.

The trade in services surplus narrowed £2.7 billion in the three months to January 2021, as exports fell £5.1 billion (8.3%) and imports by a lesser £2.4 billion (7.0%). Falls in exports and imports were largely seen in travel, transportation, and other business services.

Imports of precious metals increased by £0.4 billion (22.3%) in the three months to January 2021, while exports increased by £0.3 billion (1806.7%). Including precious metals, the total trade deficit widened by £6.8 billion to £14.5 billion in the three months to January 2021.

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6. Explore UK trade in goods country-by-commodity data for 2020 with our interactive tools

Explore the 2020 trade in goods data using our interactive tools. Our data breaks down UK trade in goods with 234 countries by 125 commodities.

Use our map to get a better understanding of what goods the UK traded with a country. Select a country by hovering over it or using the drop-down menu.

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Notes:

  1. For more information about our methods and how we compile these statistics, please see Trade in goods, country-by-commodity experimental data: 2011 to 2016. Users should note that the data published alongside this release are official statistics and no longer experimental.

  2. These data are our best estimate of these bilateral UK trade flows. Users should note that alternative estimates are available, in some cases, through the statistical agencies for bilateral countries or through central databases such as UN Comtrade.

  3. Interactive maps denote country boundaries in accordance with statistical classifications set out within Appendix 4 of the Balance of Payments (BoP) Vademecum (PDF, 1.1MB).

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You can also explore the 2020 trade in goods data by commodity, for example, car exports to the EU and UK tea or coffee imports.

Select a commodity from the drop-down menu or click through the levels to explore the data.

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Notes:

  1. For more information about our methods and how we compile these statistics, please see Trade in goods, country-by-commodity experimental data: 2011 to 2016. Users should note that the data published alongside this release are no longer experimental.

  2. These data are our best estimate of these bilateral UK trade flows. Users should note that alternative estimates are available, in some cases, via the statistical agencies for bilateral countries or through central databases such as UN Comtrade.

  3. Interactive maps denote country boundaries in accordance with statistical classifications set out within Appendix 4 of the Balance of Payments (BoP) Vademecum (PDF, 1.1MB).

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7. Total trade and 12-monthly movements

The total trade deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £3.0 billion in the 12 months to January 2021 (Table 3). The narrowing of the total trade deficit was because imports fell £130.9 billion (18.8%) and exports fell by a lesser £127.9 billion (18.9%).

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8. Revisions

The revision policy for this release has changed to align with the rest of ONS's National Accounts. In accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy, the data in this release have not been revised and only includes new data for January 2021.

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9. UK trade data

UK trade: goods and services publication tables
Dataset | Released 12 March 2021
Monthly data on the UK's trade in goods and services, including trade inside and outside the EU.

UK trade time series
Dataset MRET | Released 12 March 2021
Monthly value of UK exports and imports of goods and services by current price, chained volume measures (CVMs) and implied deflators (IDEFs).

UK trade in goods by classification of product by activity (CPA 08): Quarter 3 (July to September) 2020
Dataset | Released 16 December 2020
Quarterly and annual time series of the value of UK imports and exports of goods grouped by product. Goods are attributed to the activity of which they are the principal products.

Other related trade data
Released 12 March 2021
Other UK trade data related to this publication. These include trade in goods for all countries with the UK, monthly export and import country-by-commodity trade in goods data, and revisions triangles for monthly trade data.

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10. Glossary

Trade balance

The trade balance is the difference between exports and imports or exports minus imports. When the value of exports is greater than the value of imports, the trade balance is in surplus. When the value of imports is greater than the value of exports, the trade balance is in deficit. The balance is sometimes referred to as "net exports".

Inflation

Inflation is the change in the average price level of goods and services over a period of time.

Chained volume measures (CVMs)

A CVM is a "real" measure in that it has had the effect of inflation removed to measure the change in volume between consecutive periods, fixing the prices of goods and services in one period (the base year).

Implied deflators (IDEFs)

An IDEF shows the implied change in average prices for the respective components of the trade balance, for example, the IDEF for imports will show the average price movement for imports.

Precious metals and non-monetary gold

Precious metals include non-monetary gold, silver, platinum and palladium, and it forms part of the commodity group "unspecified goods". Non-monetary gold comprises the majority of this group and is the technical term for gold bullion not owned by central banks.

A full Glossary of economic terms is available.

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11. Measuring the data

Coronavirus data impacts

Considering the challenges with data collection from social distancing measures put in place because of coronavirus (COVID-19), we have experienced challenges around the level of survey and data returns for this trade release.

International Trade in Services (ITIS) Survey

Data from the ITIS survey make up over 50% of trade in services data. This release incorporates data collected from the quarterly ITIS survey, which is sent to around 2,200 businesses. As a result of the coronavirus, many businesses have moved to a working from home arrangement or suspended trade, causing a lower response to the survey than usual.

In order to maintain the quality of the survey, we have developed improved imputation methods where we do not have actual data. We have used information from other surveys alongside expert guidance to implement these methods and quality assure the data. We continue to review and refine these methods, along with the associated survey methods, to ensure the data are as robust as possible. Alongside this, ITIS data collection has now been moved to online methods, enabling businesses to respond to the survey using spreadsheets, rather than paper, which can then be emailed back to us.

International Passenger Survey

Data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) are the main source for travel services, making up around 8% of total trade. The IPS was suspended from 16 March 2020 because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We have been investigating alternative ways to continue to measure these services in the future.

We have worked with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Data Science Campus to create new estimates using alternative data sources. The data sources that have been used include:

  • the Civil Aviation Authority

  • Eurotunnel

  • the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers' housing costs (CPIH)

  • airline stock figures

  • aggregated and anonymised foreign-issued card spend processed through Barclays point-of-sale (POS) and "card-not present" channels

We will continue to develop these estimates over the coming months and any improvements may result in larger than usual revisions for travel services.

UK trade data

Unless otherwise specified, data within this bulletin are in current prices (CPs). This means they have not been adjusted to remove the effects of inflation.

End of EU exit transition period

As the transition period has ended and the UK has now entered into a new Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, the UK statistical system will continue to produce and publish our wide range of economic and social statistics and analysis. We are committed to continued alignment with the highest international statistical standards, enabling comparability both over time and internationally, and ensuring the general public, statistical users and decision makers have the data they need to be informed.

Additionally, the Withdrawal Agreement outlines a need for UK gross national income (a fundamental component of the national accounts, which includes GDP) statistics to remain in line with those of other EU countries until EU budget contributions are finalised for the years in which we were a member, and making budget contributions during the transition period. To ensure this comparability during this period, the national accounts will continue to be produced according to European System of Accounts (ESA) 2010 definitions and standards until at least 2024.

As the shape of the UK's future statistical relationship with the EU becomes clearer over the coming period, ONS is making preparations to assume responsibilities that as part of our membership of the EU, and during the transition period, were delegated to the statistical office of the EU, Eurostat. This includes responsibilities relating to international comparability of economic statistics, deciding what international statistical guidance to apply in the UK context and to provide further scrutiny of our statistics and sector classification decisions.

In applying international statistical standards and best practice to UK economic statistics, we will draw on the technical advice of experts in the UK and internationally, and our work will be underpinned by the UK's well-established and robust framework for independent official statistics, set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Further information on our proposals will be made available later this year.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) data

Data from HMRC are the main data source for trade in goods making up over 90% of trade in goods value. The ONS has worked closely with HMRC to prepare for the change in collection of customs data which occurred at the end of the transition period. In order to maintain the quality of the data we have worked with HMRC to ensure our processes are robust and we only reflect changes in the economic trends. Further information can be found in our article Impact of the coronavirus and EU exit on the collection and compilation of UK trade statistics.

Precious metals

In line with international standards, the ONS's headline trade statistics contain the UK's exports and imports of non-monetary gold.

Because a significant amount of the world's trade in non-monetary gold takes place on the London markets, this trade can have a large impact on the size of and change in the UK's headline trade figures. We present time series data for precious metals as well as total trade excluding this commodity, which may provide a better guide to the emerging trade picture. This includes precious metals and trade excluding precious metals by EU and non-EU countries.

Data on non-monetary gold and other precious metals are obtained from the Bank of England (BoE), who provide a balanced figure (exports less imports). We attribute the balanced data to either exports or imports, depending on whether the data are positive (that is, exports are greater than imports) or negative (that is, exports are less than imports) respectively. Once received from the BoE, the ONS smooths the precious metals data to ensure individual responses cannot be disclosed.

More information about the ONS's recording of non-monetary gold is available.

Methodology

Trade is measured through both exports and imports of goods and services. Data are supplied by over 30 sources including several administrative sources, with HMRC being the largest for trade in goods.

Detailed methodological notes are published in the UK Balance of Payments Pink Book: 2020

The UK trade methodology web pages have been developed to provide detailed information about the methods used to produce UK trade statistics.

More quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were created is available in the UK trade QMI.

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12. Strengths and limitations

National Statistics designation status

The UK Statistics Authority suspended the National Statistics designation of UK trade on 14 December 2014. We have now responded to all of the specific requirements of the reassessment of UK trade and, as part of our engagement with the Office for Statistics Regulation team, we are sharing our continuous improvement and development plans to support UK trade statistics regaining National Statistics status. We welcome feedback on our new trade statistics, developments and future plans. If you have any comments, please email them to trade@ons.gov.uk.

We are undertaking a programme of improvements to UK trade statistics in line with the UK trade development plan, including more detail and improvements now published to address anticipated future demands.

Trade asymmetries

These data are our best estimates of bilateral UK trade flows, compiled following internationally agreed standards and using a wide range of robust data sources. However, in some cases, alternative estimates of bilateral trade flows are available from the statistical agencies for the relevant countries or through central databases such as UN Comtrade. Differences between estimates are known as trade asymmetries and are a known aspect of international trade statistics, affecting bilateral estimates across the globe, not just in the UK.

We are heavily engaged in analysis of these asymmetries, developing strong bilateral relationships with other countries to understand, explain and potentially reduce them. We have published a series of analyses showing comparisons and the relative strengths of different estimates, which users may wish to reference to help them better understand the quality of our bilateral trade estimates.

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Manylion cyswllt ar gyfer y Bwletin ystadegol

Abi Casey
trade@ons.gov.uk
Ffôn: +44 (0)1633 455121