UK trade: April 2020

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

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Contact:
Email Abi Casey

Release date:
12 June 2020

Next release:
14 July 2020

1. Main points

  • The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, decreased by £3.2 billion to a deficit of £1.2 billion in the three months to April 2020, as exports fell £33.1 billion and imports fell by a lesser £29.9 billion.

  • The fall in both exports and imports in the three months to April 2020 was mainly driven by trade in services, which saw falls of £19.5 billion and £18.1 billion respectively.

  • Trade in goods, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, saw a £13.7 billion fall in exports and an £11.8 billion fall in imports in the three months to April 2020.

  • Monthly total trade imports, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, fell by £11.7 billion in April 2020, while exports fell by £9.0 billion; falls in both imports and exports were mainly seen in machinery and transport equipment, fuels and miscellaneous manufactures.

  • Removing the effect of inflation, the total trade surplus in volume terms, excluding unspecified goods (which includes non-monetary gold), narrowed by £0.9 billion to £0.2 billion in the three months to April 2020, as imports fell by £28.8 billion and exports fell by £29.8 billion.

  • Including non-monetary gold and other precious metals, the total trade balance decreased by £19.3 billion to a deficit of £4.5 billion in the three months to April 2020.

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2. The total trade balance, excluding precious metals, decreased to a deficit in the three months to April 2020

The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, decreased by £3.2 billion to a deficit of £1.2 billion in the three months to April 2020 (Figure 1). The decrease of the underlying total trade balance was because of exports falling £33.1 billion to £138.4 billion, while imports fell by a lesser £29.9 billion to £139.6 billion. The falls in both exports and imports, excluding precious metals, in the three months to April 2020, were the largest three-month falls since comparable records began in 1998.

The trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, widened by £1.9 billion to £26.8 billion in the three months to April 2020. Goods exports fell £13.7 billion to £73.3 billion, while goods imports fell £11.8 billion to £100.0 billion. Falling exports of goods were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, miscellaneous manufactures, and fuels, which fell by £7.1 billion (20.4%), £2.9 billion (22.1%) and £2.6 billion (31.4%) respectively. Falling imports were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, fuels, and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £5.6 billion (13.5%), £3.3 billion (27.2%) and £2.5 billion (14.0%) respectively (Figure 3).

The decreases in both imports and exports of machinery and transport equipment were seen largely in road vehicles. Falling imports and exports of miscellaneous manufactures were seen largely in works of art and clothing.

The trade in services surplus narrowed by £1.4 billion to £25.6 billion in the three months to April 2020. Services exports fell £19.5 billion to £65.1 billion, while services imports fell £18.1 billion to £39.6 billion. Falling exports and imports were seen across many service types, including other business services, travel services and transport services.

Exports of precious metals fell £12.7 billion in the three months to April 2020, while imports rose £3.3 billion. Including precious metals, the total trade balance decreased £19.3 billion to a deficit of £4.5 billion in the three months to April 2020, driven by a widening of the trade in goods deficit (Figure 4, Table 1).

This release covers UK trade data for February to April 2020, during which the UK as well as many of its major trading partners introduced lockdown measures to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Most of the UK's top trading partners have been significantly affected by COVID-19, and the data in this release suggest evidence of COVID-19-related impacts on UK trade.

Monthly imports, excluding precious metals, fell £11.7 billion (23.8%) in April 2020, following a fall of £4.3 billion (8.0%) in March 2020. Exports fell £9.0 billion (19.3%) in April 2020, following a fall of £7.2 billion (13.4%) in March 2020 (Figure 2). Falling imports in April were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, fuels, and miscellaneous manufactures, while falling exports were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and miscellaneous manufactures. The monthly falls in total trade exports and imports in April 2020 are the largest since comparable records began in 1998.

While we do expect COVID-19 restrictive measures to impact on international trade and the movements of goods and services, there is currently no conclusive evidence that the trends observed in this release were entirely because of COVID-19. It should also be noted that monthly data are erratic and small movements in these monthly series should be treated with caution.

Furthermore, the widespread disruption to the UK has introduced a number of constraints on operations that directly impact how we collect estimates of trade flows. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has prioritised assessment of data supplies to give early signal of potential data gaps and/or reduction in data quality. Fuller details on steps we are undertaking are captured in Section 11.

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3. The trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, narrowed with EU countries and widened with non-EU countries in the three months to April 2020

The trade in goods deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £3.6 billion to £8.6 billion with non-EU countries in the three months to April 2020. With EU countries, the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, narrowed by a lesser £1.8 billion to £18.2 billion (Figure 5).

The widening of the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with non-EU countries was because of a £8.6 billion fall in goods exports to £38.7 billion, partly offset by a £5.0 billion fall in goods imports to £47.3 billion. Falling goods exports to non-EU countries were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, miscellaneous manufactures, and fuels, which fell by £4.0 billion (19.2%), £2.4 billion (30.8%) and £1.2 billion (45.1%) respectively. Falling imports from non-EU countries were largely driven by fuels, and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £2.6 billion (26.2%) and £1.4 billion (13.6%) respectively.

The narrowing of the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with EU countries was because of a £6.8 billion fall in goods imports to £52.7 billion, while goods exports fell by a lesser £5.0 billion to £34.5 billion. Falling goods imports from EU countries were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £4.7 billion (20.0%) and £1.1 billion (14.4%) respectively. Falling exports to EU countries were largely because of machinery and transport equipment, and fuels, which fell by £3.1 billion (22.2%) and £1.5 billion (25.3%) respectively.

Precious metals saw large falls in exports to non-EU countries in the three months to April 2020, largely because of high levels of exports in November and December 2019. Exports fell by £12.1 billion, while imports rose by a lesser £3.3 billion. Including precious metals, the trade in goods balance with non-EU countries decreased by £19.0 billion to a deficit of £11.9 billion.

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4. Removing the effect of inflation, the total trade surplus, excluding unspecified goods, narrowed in the three months to April 2020

This section presents volume and price estimates of UK trade exports, imports and balances, using chained volume measures (CVMs) and implied deflators (IDEFs). For more details on these terms, see Section 10 of this release.

In volume terms, the total trade surplus (goods and services), excluding unspecified goods (which includes non-monetary gold), narrowed by £0.9 billion to £0.2 billion in the three months to April 2020 (Figure 6). The narrowing of the underlying total trade surplus was largely because of a narrowing of the trade in services surplus.

The trade in services surplus in volume terms narrowed by £0.9 billion to £23.3 billion in the three months to April 2020, driven by a £19.0 billion fall in services exports. This was partly offset by a £18.1 billion fall in services imports.

The trade in goods deficit in volume terms, excluding unspecified goods, widened by £0.1 billion to £23.1 billion, as exports fell £10.8 billion and imports fell by £10.7 billion.

Falling exports in the three months to April 2020 were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment, and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £6.9 billion and £3.0 billion respectively. Falling imports were seen largely in machinery and transport equipment, miscellaneous manufactures, and material manufactures, which fell by £6.8 billion, £3.1 billion and £1.3 billion respectively.

Exports of unspecified goods fell by £11.8 billion in the three months to April 2020, while imports rose by a lesser £3.2 billion. Therefore, the total trade balance in volume terms, including unspecified goods, decreased by £15.9 billion to a deficit of £3.1 billion in the three months to April 2020, driven by a widening of the trade in goods deficit.

Total trade import prices rose 1.1% in the three months to April 2020, largely driven by a 4.5% rise in services import prices.

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5. Explore UK trade in goods country-by-commodity data for 2019 with our interactive tools

Explore the 2019 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 particular 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).

You can also explore the 2019 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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6. The total trade deficit, excluding precious metals, narrowed in the 12 months to April 2020

The total trade deficit (goods and services), excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £26.8 billion to £7.4 billion in the 12 months to April 2020, as imports fell by £34.6 billion and exports fell by a lesser £7.8 billion.

The narrowing of the underlying total trade deficit in the 12 months to April 2020 was largely because of a £31.3 billion narrowing of the trade in goods deficit to £113.1 billion. Imports of goods decreased by £41.8 billion to £455.4 billon, while exports fell by £10.5 billion to £342.3 billion.

The fall in goods imports was caused by machinery and transport, fuels, and chemicals, which decreased by £13.6 billion, £10.0 billion and £7.6 billion respectively.

The fall in goods exports was largely because of fuels, and machinery and transport equipment, which decreased by £9.0 billion and £4.0 billion respectively.

The trade in services surplus narrowed by £4.5 billion to £105.8 billion in the 12 months to April 2020, as imports increased by £7.2 billion to £210.5 billion and exports increased by a lesser £2.7 billion to £316.3 billion.

Exports of precious metals increased by £14.9 billion in the 12 months to April 2020, while imports fell by £9.6 billion. Including precious metals, the total trade balance increased by £51.3 billion to a surplus of £3.2 billion in the 12 months to April 2020, largely because of a £55.8 billion narrowing of the trade in goods deficit (Figure 7, Table 2).

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7. The trade in goods deficit narrowed with both EU and non-EU countries in the 12 months to April 2020

The trade in goods deficit with non-EU countries narrowed by £41.7 billion to £18.3 billion in the 12 months to April 2020, while with EU counties it narrowed by £14.0 billion to £84.3 billion (Figure 8).

The narrowing of the trade in goods deficit with non-EU countries was mainly because of a £23.1 billion decrease in imports to £217.1 billion, while exports rose by £18.7 billion to £198.8 billion. Falling imports from non-EU countries were largely caused by non-monetary gold and other precious metals, and fuels, which fell by £9.4 billion and £6.8 billion respectively. The increase in non-EU exports was largely caused by precious metals, and miscellaneous manufactures, which rose by £14.1 billion and £4.4 billion respectively.

The narrowing of the trade in goods deficit with EU countries in the 12 months to April 2020 was because of a £28.3 billion fall in imports to £244.2 billion, while exports fell by £14.3 billion to £159.9 billion.

Falling imports from EU countries were largely because of machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, material manufactures, and fuels, which decreased by £10.9 billion, £5.9 billion, £3.4 billion and £3.2 billion respectively.

The fall in EU exports was caused by machinery and transport equipment, fuels, and chemicals, which fell by £5.0 billion, £3.3 billion and £2.6 billion respectively.

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8. Revisions

In accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy, data in this release have been revised back from January 2019.

The total trade deficit for March 2020 was revised up (narrowing of the deficit) by £2.7 billion to £4.0 billion. The upward revision to the total trade deficit was largely driven by a £2.2 billion downwards revision to services imports.

These revisions also include the impact of gross domestic product (GDP) balancing adjustments that are applied to component series (which includes trade) to improve the GDP quarterly alignment position. This month, as GDP and associated balancing adjustments have not yet been revised, we have continued with the balancing adjustments applied last month. These adjustments are in line with the GDP first quarterly estimate published on 13 May 2020.

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9. UK trade data

UK trade: goods and services publication tables
Dataset | Released 12 June 2020 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 June 2020 Monthly value of UK exports and imports of goods and services by current price, chained volume measures (CVMs) and implied deflators (IDEFs).

Other related trade data
Released 12 June 2020
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.

Erratics

Erratics are a specific group of commodities that are extremely influential on trade in goods. They often mask the underlying trend in the export or import values because of their volatility. The "erratics" series includes ships, aircraft, precious stones, silver and non-monetary gold.

Non-monetary gold

Non-monetary gold is the technical term for gold bullion not owned by central banks.

Precious metals

Precious metals includes 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.

A full Glossary of economic terms is available.

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11. Measuring the data

Coronavirus data impacts

In light of the challenges with data collection from social distancing measures put in place because of the 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

The ITIS is a paper-based survey sent to a number of UK businesses. Data from the ITIS survey make up over 50% of trade in services data, making it a particularly important aspect of our trade numbers. 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.

We have developed models to assist in the quality assurance of ITIS data, which use alternative data sources such as Index of Services (IoS) and Index of Production (IoP) to estimate ITIS data. We have used these alongside actual ITIS survey data, external indicators, information from other Office for National Statistics (ONS) surveys, and expert guidance to supplement and quality assure the survey data. We continue to review and refine these models, along will the associated survey methods, to ensure the data are as robust as possible.

Alongside this, work is also underway to move ITIS data collection to online methods. Soon, businesses will be able to respond to the survey using spreadsheets, rather than paper, which can then be emailed back to us. We are also exploring the option of moving the ITIS survey fully online, along with a number of other surveys across the (ONS).

International Passenger Survey (IPS)

Within our trade statistics, data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) are the main source for travel services, making up around 8% of total trade. The data give a breakdown of the types of travel undertaken, the expenditure of both foreign residents visiting the UK as well as UK residents visiting the rest of the world. With the IPS suspended from 16 March 2020 we have been investigating alternative ways to continue to measure these services going forward.

For Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2020, we were able to use monthly IPS data for January and February, using partial responses for March to model that month's data. While we recognise that March data will have a lower response than typical, we have quality assured the data against other travel data sources to ensure the estimate reflects the changing picture for travel services.

For April onwards, we have been working with ONS's Data Science Campus to create new estimates using alternative data sources. We have looked to include a diverse range of data sources as possible such as passenger, economic and wider data sources. The data sources that have been used include Civil Aviation Authority, Eurotunnel, Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers' housing costs (CPIH), airline stock figures and aggregated and anonymised foreign-issued card spend processed through Barclays Point-of-Sale (POS) and "card-not present" channels.

This model has been introduced for the first time in this publication for April 2020. We will continue to develop these estimates over the coming months and any improvements may result in larger than usual revisions for travel services.

Trade in services April data

As the majority of trade in services data sources provide data on a quarterly or annual basis, and in line with this point in previous quarters, April 2020 estimates are largely forecast within this release. In light of the UK and global lockdowns because of COVID-19, we have taken additional steps to quality assure the April estimates, using both internal and external data sources, to ensure the data are as robust as possible. Because of the variation in trade in services data, we have used a variety of sources to support this work including;

  • the ONS's Index of Services (IoS)

  • the ONS's Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS)

  • IPS modelling

  • Bank of England

  • Chamber of Shipping

  • flight radar

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.

UK trade data within our monthly trade bulletin are published at around a six-week lag because of the timeliness of source data. For example, the December 2020 publication will include data up to the end of October 2020.

After EU withdrawal

As the UK leaves the EU, it is important that our statistics continue to be of high quality and are internationally comparable. During the transition period, those UK statistics that align with EU practice and rules will continue to do so in the same way as before 31 January 2020. We will continue to produce statistics broken down to EU and non-EU aggregates.

After the transition period, we will continue to produce our international trade statistics in line with the UK Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Statistics and in accordance with internationally agreed statistical guidance and standards. This is based on the International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) Balance of Payments and International Investment Position Manual sixth edition (BPM6), until those standards are updated.

Data published in UK trade statistical releases also form part of the broader system of UK National Accounts, which will be produced in line with international standards as laid down in the European System of Accounts (ESA) 2010 until the EU budgets are finalised for the years in which we were a member, as specified in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Data revision policy

Data within this release have been revised in accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy. Data in this release have been revised back to January 2019 when compared with trade figures published in our previous trade bulletin on 13 May 2020.

Erratic commodities

Trade statistics for any one month can be erratic. For that reason, we recommend comparing the latest three months with the preceding three months and the same three months of the previous year.

Oil and other "erratic" commodities can make a large contribution to trade in goods, but they often mask the underlying trend in the export or import values because of their volatility. The "erratics" series includes ships, aircraft, precious stones, silver and non-monetary gold.

 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. This means that we do not receive export and import data separately, just the balance (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.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) data are used in our processing to publish an EU and non-EU allocation of precious metals. Data from HMRC are based on a cross-border movement of goods basis, whereas we publish on a change of economic ownership basis. This may lead to differences in the country-level estimates. These estimates are the best country-level breakdowns at this time, but users are advised to apply caution and take account of the separate methods basis of these outputs.

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

The base year

Because of a very demanding set of changes in the 2019 national accounts annual update, we have not fully reconciled 2017 annual data. Instead, we have produced an indicative balance to allow further time for final quality assurance of the data. Consequently, the reference year and last base year for all chained volume measure (CVM) series remains as 2016.

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.

This monthly release contains tables showing the total value of trade in goods together with CVMs and implied deflators (IDEFs). Figures are analysed by broad commodity group (CPs, CVMs and IDEFs) and according to geographic area (CPs only). In addition, the UK trade statistical bulletin also includes early monthly estimates of the value of trade in services.

Further qualitative data and information can be found in the accompanying datasets. This includes data on response rates and revision triangles.

Detailed methodological notes are published in the UK Balance of Payments, The Pink Book: 2019.

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 November 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. On 24 October 2018, we published an article outlining our achievements so far and forward look with regards to the transformation of our trade statistics.

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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Contact details for this Statistical bulletin

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