1. Main points

  • Between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017, the total UK trade (goods and services) excluding erratic commodities deficit widened by £2.9 billion to £10.8 billion.

  • Between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017, the total UK trade (goods and services) deficit widened by £6.2 billion to £13.2 billion; this was largely due to a switch from a surplus to a deficit on the balance of erratic commodities, such as non-monetary gold, that can have large effects on headline movements and make it difficult to discern underlying trends so users are advised to put more emphasis on the UK trade excluding erratic commodities balance.

  • Between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017, total trade in goods exports fell due to decreased exports to non-EU countries, partially offset by increased exports to other EU countries.

  • Trade in goods export volumes excluding oil and erratics fell, while trade in goods import volumes excluding oil and erratics rose, over the three months to August 2017.

  • The total trade deficit (goods and services) excluding erratic commodities widened by £1.7 billion to £4.6 billion between July and August 2017.

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2. Things you need to know about this release

Unless otherwise stated, all trade values discussed in this release are in current prices. The time series dataset also includes chained volume measures (series for which the effects of inflation have been removed), and these are indexed to form the volume series presented in the publication tables.

Data are supplied by over 30 sources, including several administrative sources; HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) covering trade in goods is the largest. For trade in services, data are less timely than trade in goods estimates, and sourced mainly from survey data and a variety of administrative sources. The services data are processed quarterly, so monthly forecasts are made to provide a complete trade total. The most recent monthly data can therefore be considered more uncertain.

Trade statistics for any one month can be erratic. For that reason, we recommend comparing the latest three months against 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 often mask the underlying trend in the export or import values due to their volatility. The “erratics” series includes ships, aircraft, precious stones, silver and non-monetary gold. Non-monetary gold can have a particularly large impact on growth rates, due to the large volumes of gold traded on the London markets. Therefore, we also publish data exclusive of these commodities, which may provide a better guide to the emerging trade picture.

In accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy, data in this release have been revised from January 1997 to July 2017. Estimates are consistent with the Quarterly National Accounts and Balance of Payments published on 29 September 2017. These revisions include updating the reference year and last base year for annual chain-linking from 2013 to 2015.

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 are in the final stages of providing evidence to the Authority. We are undertaking a programme of improvements to UK trade statistics in line with the UK trade development plan that will also address anticipated future demands. While delivering against this plan, we will continue to work with the Office for Statistics Regulation team to regain National Statistics status for UK trade statistics. We welcome feedback on the UK trade development plan.

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3. Deficit on trade in goods and services excluding erratic commodities widened by £2.9 billion in the three months to August 2017

Between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017, total trade (goods and services) exports decreased by 1.4% (£2.1 billion) while total trade imports increased by 2.5% (£4.1 billion), resulting in a large widening of the total trade (goods and services) deficit by £6.2 billion to £13.2 billion.

The widening of the deficit in the three months to August 2017 reduces substantially when trade in erratic commodities is excluded. This is due to the large impact of trade in erratic commodities, such as aircraft, ships and precious metals (including non-monetary gold).

Between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017, the value of the total UK trade (goods and services) deficit excluding erratic commodities widened by £2.9 billion to £10.8 billion. This was primarily due to a widening of the trade in goods deficit excluding erratic commodities by £3.8 billion, partially offset by a widening of the trade in services surplus by £0.8 billion.

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4. Decreases in exports to non-EU countries more than offset increases in exports to other EU countries, in the three months to August 2017

Exports of goods to non-EU countries decreased by £4.0 billion (8.8%) between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017. As shown in Figure 2, almost half was due to a decrease in fuel exports (£1.9 billion).

Exports of goods to the EU increased by £1.7 billion (4.1%) between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017, due to machinery and transport equipment exports increasing by £0.8 billion, and smaller increases elsewhere.

Imports of goods from non-EU countries increased by £2.6 billion (4.9%), while imports to EU countries increased by £2.0 billion (3.2%) between the three months to May 2017 and the three months to August 2017.

The increase in imports of unspecified goods from non-EU countries (£3.0 billion; more than double the value for the previous three months), including non-monetary gold and other precious metals, were greater than all other imports of goods.

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5. Total trade deficit excluding erratic commodities widens by £1.7 billion between July and August 2017

The UK’s total trade deficit (goods and services) excluding erratic commodities widened by £1.7 billion to £4.6 billion between July 2017 and August 2017. This was due to increased trade in goods imports excluding erratic commodities of £1.8 billion.

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6. What are the revisions to trade values since last month?

In accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy, data in this release have been revised from January 1997 to July 2017. This is to ensure that both trade in goods and services data in this release are consistent with trade data incorporated into the wider Quarterly National Accounts and Balance of Payments published on 29 September 2017. Revisions reflect methodological improvements and standard revisions made as part of annual compilation processes.

Revisions to the total trade balance are relatively small and upward (narrowing of the deficit) throughout 1997 to 2013 – with the largest upward revision occurring in 2012 (£4.0 billion). This is primarily due to small upward revisions to exports while revisions to imports were smaller in comparison and revised downward. A detailed assessment of these changes is available within the detailed assessment of changes to balance of payment annual estimates: 1997 to 2015.

In contrast, the total trade balance revisions for 2014 onwards are downward (widening of the deficit), with 2016 having the largest downward revision (£6.0 billion), reflecting larger upward revisions to imports. A detailed assessment of annual changes for 1997 to 2017 is available in the National Accounts article published on 29 September 2017.

In addition, revisions to July 2017 reflect revisions to source data. Since the July 2017 publication there has been upward revisions to both imports of goods and services (£0.9 billion and £0.6 billion respectively), with a small offset from an upward revision of £0.2 billion to total trade in goods and services exports. This has resulted in a widening of the trade deficit by £1.4 billion in July 2017 compared with the previous UK trade release.

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8. Quality and methodology

Trade is measured through both imports and exports of goods and/or services. Data are supplied by over 30 sources including several administrative sources, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) being the largest.

This monthly release contains tables showing the total value of trade in goods together with index numbers of volume and price. Figures are analysed by broad commodity group (values and indices) and according to geographical area (values 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 attached datasets. This includes data on:

Detailed methodological notes are published in the UK Balance of Payments, The Pink Book 2016. The UK trade methodology web pages have been developed to provide detailed information about the methods used to produce UK trade statistics.

The UK trade Quality and Methodology Information report contains important information on:

  • the strengths and limitations of the data and how it compares with related data

  • uses and users of the data

  • how the output was created

  • the quality of the output including the accuracy of the data

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