UK trade: May 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:
14 July 2020

Next release:
12 August 2020

1. Main points

  • The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, decreased by £5.2 billion to a deficit of £1.7 billion in the three months to May 2020, as exports fell by £47.7 billion and imports fell by a lesser £42.6 billion.
  • Falling exports and imports in the three months to May 2020 were largely seen in trade in services, which fell by £28.7 billion and £22.2 billion respectively.
  • Trade in goods, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, saw a £20.3 billion fall in imports and a £19.0 billion fall in exports in the three months to May 2020.
  • The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £0.8 billion to a surplus of £0.7 billion in May 2020; imports and exports remained low in May, with a £0.6 billion fall and £0.2 billion rise respectively, following large falls of both in April.
  • Removing the effect of inflation, the total trade surplus, excluding unspecified goods (which includes non-monetary gold), narrowed by £2.2 billion to £0.5 billion in the three months to May 2020, as exports fell by £41.1 billion and imports fell by £38.8 billion.
  • The total trade deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £28.8 billion to £5.5 billion in the 12 months to May 2020.
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2. The total trade balance, excluding precious metals, decreased to a deficit in the three months to May 2020

The total trade balance, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, decreased by £5.2 billion to a deficit of £1.7 billion in the three months to May 2020 (Figure 1). The decrease of the underlying total trade balance was because of exports falling by £47.7 billion to £120.4 billion, while imports fell by a lesser £42.6 billion to £122.1 billion (Table 1). The falls in both exports and imports in the three months to May 2020 were the largest three-month falls since comparable records began in 1998.

The trade in services surplus narrowed by £6.5 billion to £22.1 billion in the three months to May 2020 (Figure 3). Services exports fell by £28.7 billion to £54.2 billion, while services imports fell by £22.2 billion to £32.0 billion.

The trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, narrowed by £1.3 billion to £23.8 billion in the three months to May 2020. Goods imports fell by £20.3 billion to £90.1 billion, while goods exports fell by £19.0 billion to £66.3 billion. Falling imports of goods were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and fuels, which fell by £10.6 billion (26.0%) and £5.0 billion (42.4%) respectively. Falling exports were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £10.1 billion (29.8%) and £3.8 billion (29.4%) respectively. The falls in imports and exports of machinery and transport equipment were largely seen in road vehicles, while the falls in exports of miscellaneous manufactures were largely seen in other manufactures and works of art.

The fall in exports is likely linked to the falls in production and manufacturing, which fell by 20% and 24% respectively in April 2020. Within manufacturing, the most notable fall was manufacturing of transport equipment, which fell by 50% in April as many plants in the UK partially or fully closed; this impacted exports of cars, as approximately 80% of cars produced in the UK are exported. The import of road vehicles has also been affected by the closure of non-essential businesses, including car showrooms, on 24 March reportedly leading to a 97% fall in new car sales in April. Following the gradual easing of restrictions in England on 13 May, starting with the opening of manufacturing and construction sectors, a reported two-thirds of UK automotive plants have reopened in a limited capacity in May.

The fall in fuel imports is likely linked to the fall in global demand for oil and gas. The global oil industry was particularly susceptible to restrictions on transportation and aviation, as it accounts for around 60% of global oil demand. Those countries that experienced full lockdown, such as the UK, saw on average a 25% decline in energy demand per week, with those countries in a partial lockdown seeing falls of on average 18%.

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

Falling imports and exports in the three months to May 2020 were largely driven by large falls in March and April, followed by relatively small movements in May. Monthly imports, excluding precious metals, fell by £0.6 billion (1.7%) in May 2020, following a fall of £12.1 billion (24.8%) in April 2020. Exports rose by £0.2 billion (0.4%) in May 2020, following a fall of £9.9 billion (21.3%) in April 2020 (Figure 2).

Coronavirus restrictive measures are impacting on international trade and the movements of goods and services. The Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS) Wave 5 reported coronavirus-related transport restrictions were the main challenge for 43.4% of importing businesses and 35.6% of exporting businesses across all industries, with 73.5% of exporting businesses reporting exporting less than normal and 60.4% of importing businesses reporting importing less than normal. Yet, a large portion of importers (37.3%) and exporters (46.3%) across all industries did not experience any challenges with exporting and importing in the two weeks prior to the survey.

It should be noted, however, that monthly data are erratic and small movements in these monthly series should be treated with caution.

Exports of precious metals fell by £1.6 billion in the three months to May 2020, while imports rose by £0.2 billion. Including precious metals, the total trade surplus decreased by £7.0 billion to £2.7 billion in the three months to May 2020, driven by a narrowing of the trade in services surplus.

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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 May 2020

The trade in goods deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £2.0 billion to £16.2 billion with EU countries in the three months to May 2020. With non-EU countries, the trade in goods deficit widened by a lesser £0.7 billion to £7.6 billion (Figure 4).

The narrowing of the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with EU countries was because of a £10.9 billion fall in goods imports to £47.3 billion, while goods exports fell by a lesser £8.9 billion to £31.1 billion. Falling good imports from EU countries were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £7.9 billion (34.4%) and £1.8 billion (24.2%) respectively. Falling exports to EU countries were largely because of machinery and transport equipment and fuels, which fell by £4.8 billion (35.1%) and £2.6 billion (43.5%) respectively.

The widening of the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with non-EU countries, was because of a £10.1 billion fall in goods exports to £35.2 billion, partly offset by a £9.4 billion fall in goods imports to £42.8 billion. Falling goods exports to non-EU countries were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £5.2 billion (26.1%) and £3.0 billion (39.6%) respectively. Falling imports from non-EU countries were largely seen in fuels and machinery and transport equipment, which fell by £4.4 billion (44.4%) and £2.7 billion (15.3%) respectively.

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4. Removing the effect of inflation, the total trade surplus, excluding unspecified goods, narrowed in the three months to May 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. In volume terms, the total trade surplus (goods and services), excluding unspecified goods (which includes non-monetary gold), narrowed by £2.2 billion to £0.5 billion in the three months to May 2020, as exports fell by £41.1 billion and imports fell by £38.8 billion (Figure 5).

The narrowing of the underlying total trade surplus was largely because of a £5.6 billion narrowing of the trade in services surplus to £20.3 billion in the three months to May 2020. Services exports fell by £26.9 billion, partly offset by a £21.3 billion decrease in services imports.

The trade in goods deficit, excluding unspecified goods, narrowed by £3.4 billion to £19.8 billion, as imports fell by £17.5 billion and exports fell by £14.1 billion.

Falling imports in the three months to May 2020 were largely seen in machinery and transport equipment and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £11.4 billion and £4.5 billion respectively. Falling exports were seen largely in machinery and transport equipment and miscellaneous manufactures, which fell by £9.9 billion and £3.9 billion respectively.

Total trade export prices fell by 1.7% in the three months to May 2020, largely driven by a 3.3% fall in goods exports 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. We have broken down our data on 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 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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6. The total trade deficit, excluding precious metals, narrowed in the 12 months to May 2020

The total trade deficit (goods and services), excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £28.8 billion to £5.5 billion in the 12 months to May 2020, as imports fell by £59.3 and exports fell by a lesser £30.5 billion.

The narrowing of the underlying total trade deficit in the 12 months to May 2020 was largely because of a £36.5 billion narrowing of the trade in goods deficit to £107.9 billion. Imports decreased by £56.4 billon to £441.0 billion, while exports decreased by £19.8 billion to £333.1 billion.

The fall in goods imports was caused by machinery and transport equipment and fuels, which decreased by £21.4 billion and £12.7 billion respectively. The fall in goods exports was caused by a falls in fuels and machinery and transport equipment, which decreased by £11.5 billion and £8.8 billion respectively.

The trade in services surplus narrowed by £7.8 billion to £102.4 billon in the 12 months to May 2020, as exports fell by £10.7 billion to £304.7 billion and imports fell by a lesser £2.9 billion to £202.3 billion.

Exports of precious metals increased by £20.9 billion in the 12 months to May 2020, while imports fell by £9.8 billion. Including precious metals, the total trade balance increased by £59.5 billion to a surplus of £11.5 billion in the 12 months to May 2020, largely because of a £67.2 billion narrowing of the trade in goods deficit (Figure 6, Table 2).

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7. The trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, narrowed with both EU and non-EU countries in the 12 months to May 2020

The trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with non-EU countries narrowed by £21.7 billon to £26.1 billion in the 12 months to May 2020, while with EU countries it narrowed by £14.8 billion to £81.8 billion (Figure 7).

The narrowing of the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with non-EU countries was mainly because of a £21.8 billion decrease in imports to £204.9 billion, while exports fell by £0.1 billion to £178.7 billion. Falling imports from non-EU countries were largely caused by fuels and machinery and transport equipment, which fell by £9.9 billion and £5.4 billion respectively. The fall in non-EU exports was largely because of fuels, which decreased by £6.1 billion, partially offset by chemicals and miscellaneous manufactures, which increased by £3.3 billion and £2.4 billion respectively.

The narrowing of the trade in goods deficit, excluding precious metals, with EU countries in the 12 months to May 2020 was because of a £34.6 billion fall in imports to £236.1 billion, while exports fell by £19.8 billion to £154.3 billion. Falling imports from EU countries were largely because of machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, and material manufactures, which decreased by £16.0 billion, £5.6 billion and £4.4 billion respectively. The fall in EU exports was caused by machinery and transport equipment and fuels, which fell by £7.7 billion and £5.4 billion respectively.

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8. Revisions

In accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy, goods data in this release have been revised back to April 2020, while services data have been revised back to January 2019. This aligns with the quarterly national accounts and balance of payments publications.

The total trade surplus for April 2020 was revised up (widening of the surplus) by £2.0 billion to £2.3 billion. The upward revision to the total trade deficit was largely driven by a £1.5 billion upwards revision to goods exports.

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9. UK trade data

UK trade: goods and services publication tables
Dataset | Released 14 July 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 14 July 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 14 July 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 chained volume measure (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 implied deflator (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 they form 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

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

Data from the International Trade in Services (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, 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 the 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 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. We are also exploring the option of moving the ITIS 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 and 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 as well as partial responses for March. 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 worked with the ONS’s Data Science Campus to create new estimates using alternative data sources, looking at a diverse range of 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.

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 and May 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 and May 2020 estimates are largely forecast within this release. In light of the UK and global coronavirus lockdowns, we have taken additional steps to quality assure the April and May 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 , ONS’s Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS), IPS modelling, Bank of England, Chamber of Shipping and 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

In accordance with the National Accounts Revisions Policy, goods data in this release have been revised back to April 2020, while services data have been revised back to January 2019 when compared with trade figures published in our previous trade bulletin on 12 June 2020.

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, which provides 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 Bank of England, 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 (current prices 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