Balance of payments deficit balloons to historic high

Analysts warn UK is vulnerable but strong US economy propels Dow through 18,000

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The Independent Online

Britain's current account deficit has ballooned to its highest ever level, official statistics showed yesterday, raising fresh concerns about the sustainability of the UK’s recovery.

The balance of payments gap shot up to £27bn in the three months to September, equal to 6 per cent of GDP. The current account deficit for the third quarter of 2013 was also revised up to 6 per cent. Both figures represent the biggest quarterly deficits registered since modern records began in 1955.

The previous record was set in the third quarter of 1988, during the Lawson boom, when the current account deficit, according to the latest figures, hit 5.1 per cent of GDP. Revisions to the GDP level since the Office for National Statistics’ previous balance of payments report revealed that the current account deficit in the 2013 calendar year was the highest annual deficit on record, at 4.5 per cent of GDP, beating the 4.4 per cent seen in 1989.

Analysts warned that the deficit made the UK vulnerable to a sudden reversal of global capital flows. “If the UK falls out of favour with international investors for any reason, the economy might be forced to rebalance the hard way, with a combination of currency depreciation to make exports more competitive and lower domestic demand to suck in fewer imports,” said Simon Ward of HSBC.

The main cause of the balance of payments deterioration was slippage in the income account to minus £12.6bn, with a decline in the revenue earned by British firms on their overseas investments and an increase in the UK profits of overseas firms. The trade deficit for goods and services actually narrowed slightly over the quarter to £9bn.

In a further concerning sign, the ONS doubled its estimate for the fall in business investment in the third quarter from a 0.7 per cent to a 1.4 per cent decline. The annual rate of growth collapsed from 10.7 per cent to 5.2 per cent.

The ONS also confirmed that net trade and business investment dragged down growth in the three months, with almost all of the 0.7 per cent GDP growth coming from household consumption. The household savings rate in the quarter declined to 7 per cent, indicating people are financing their additional spending by saving less of their disposable income.

The ONS also made some sizeable downward revisions to GDP growth over the past year, taking the annual rate of growth in the third quarter from 3 per cent to 2.6 per cent. Those revisions will make it hard for the economy to grow in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast this month for 3 per cent growth in 2014. The economy would need to grow by 2.2 per cent in the final quarter alone to hit that target. “The latest set of national accounts leave the UK’s economic recovery looking more fragile than it seemed before,” said Samuel Tombs of Capital Economics.

In the US, by contrast, growth in the third quarter was revised up to its strongest rate in 11 years. GDP rose 5 per cent on an annualised basis, up from the 3.9 per cent previously estimated. That news sent the benchmark Dow Jones index up above 18,000 for the first time ever, while the dollar also strengthened. “After four years of rocky recovery, the US economy is now hitting its stride and growth should remain good next year, with lower gasoline prices a big plus for consumers,” said Gus Faucher of PNC Financial Services.

Signs emerged yesterday of a further slowdown in the UK housing market. The British Bankers’ Association reported that mortgage approvals last month were down 20 per cent on November 2013, from 45,594 to 36,717.

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