Don't look now - Britain's invisibles disappear

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Britain's invisibles are disappearing, writes Paul Rodgers. This week, for the first time, the Government will release quarterly balance of payments figures that do not contain the term.

Few economics commentators will be disappointed by the demise of the figures. For 114 years, they have been unable to mention invisible trade without explaining that it covers services sold to foreigners, dividends from overseas investments and direct transfers such as government aid and private gifts.

But it is causing ructions at British Invisibles, the trade promotion body headed by Sir Brian Pearse, who, at 15 stone, jokes that he is all too visible. The search is on for a new name.

"The problem is that it covers so many areas, from financial services to musical rights. We have to be careful not to exclude anyone," said Sir Brian. "The best definition I've heard is that invisibles are things that if they fall on your foot don't hurt."

Britain is the only country to use "invisibles" to cover trade in intangibles - anything other than goods that can be counted and weighed as they are loaded onto ships. By abandoning the term, they will bring British statistics into line with those of other countries.

The British use of the phrase dates back to 1882, when Sir Robert Giffen, an economist then running the commerce department, was worried about the growing gap between imports and exports. By including intangibles, he made the figures look more favourable.

Now, figures for the three sub-categories - services, investment income and transfers - will still be given. But invisible trade, the sum of the three, will no longer be given separately.