Commentary: A harrowing tale of trade figures

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The Independent Online
The Treasury was cheered by yesterday's trade figures, even though the underlying trade deficit, at pounds 1.63bn, was one of the highest in 1992.

The Treasury thinks, correctly, that the effects of devaluation have yet to feed through fully to exports. We can only hope that exporters do not take too much on their margins: export prices in sterling are up 3.7 per cent compared with September. As long as companies keep a firm grip on costs, the Treasury thinks, exporters will benefit from sterling's depreciation and lower interest rates in future.

There its case rests. Yet such a reaction looks like malign neglect, given that the current account deficit is deteriorating in an economy still so decisively in recession. The real story told by these figures is more harrowing than the Treasury would have us believe. A rise in domestic demand over the past 12 months has had to be satisfied by imports and was of little benefit to domestic producers.

The inescapable conclusion is that British producers simply do not make an adequate range of goods. Consumers and businesses have therefore to turn to importers even to satisfy basic demands. The result was that, although the impetus for recovery was there in 1992, it was blocked by demand for imports. Put another way, Britain exported jobs this year.

Even if there is a 1993 recovery, the balance of payments will continue to dampen growth. The long-run result will be a downgrading of Britain's average potential growth rate - the rate at which an economy can grow without overheating. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates the rate at 2.5 per cent. Privately, Treasury officials think it may now be as low as 2 per cent. If only they were willing to admit that in public, they might then address the problem.