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A great British hobby was predicting what the weather might be next, which was essential for many 19th century traders. This was because trade winds would affect the number of ships that may be arriving at Britain’s ports, further influencing the money markets. Trade had become such an important aspect of life at the time that even the Bank of England placed a weathervane on their roof to help in making market decisions. Like in the past, trade is just as important today. In 2013, the UK made up 3.0% of the world’s merchandise exports, about $549,030,000 USD of exports in 2013 (WTO, 2014: 24). According to the World Trade Organization (2013), in 2013 the UK ranks number 8 as leading exporter in world merchandise trade, with merchandise trade value of 542 billion USD, having an annual percentage change of 15%. The figure below illustrates the UK’s seasonally adjusted value of trade in goods, as per the office national statics, 2014
Figure 1: Value of UK goods in trade (Source: ONS, 2014)
The method by which UK interacts with its trading partners influences international trade. This study will examine factors and various trade theories that explain trade patterns of the UK with its 10 main trading partners.
Based on IMF (2015) findings, the UK has the fifth largest national economy based on nominal GDP, and ninth largest in the world, based on purchasing power parity. Today, the UK is considered one of the world’s most globalised economy, a dominating role it has played being the first to industrialize in the 18th century and playing a dominate role in the global economy in 19th century. Like many world economies recovering from the 2008 recession, the UK had experienced negative growth for two consecutive quarters in 2012. But by the close of 2014 it has become one of the fastest growing G7 economies with employment rising to the highest figure since its recession period comeback (WTO, 2014).
The Office for National Statistics (2015) has asserted that UK trade is the key contributor to the overall economic growth in the country. In 2013, the UK was considered the leading country in Europe for inward foreign direct investment (FDI) of 26.51 billion USD, giving the country a 19.31% market share in Europe alone (FDI Intl., 2014). While for outward FDI, UK has gained a 17.24% market share of Europe with 42.59 billion USD (FDI Intl., 2014).
The UK’s trade with neighbouring European countries is necessary, with seven of the ten main export destinations of the UK being in the EU. However, non-EU countries is increasingly becoming more significant, as evident from the data obtained ONS, 2014;
Figure 2: EU & non EU countries balance of trade 2014 (Source: ONS, 2014)
Based on a country level, the UK’s leading destination for exports is the American market, with large trade surplus coming from Ireland (The Economist, 2013). France is considered to both a large exporter and importer with UK. Germany, the Netherlands, and China are countries that have developed UK’s largest deficits. Based on UK’s 2014 exports, Switzerland has also become a leading trade partner, along with Canada, Spain, and Belgium. The figure below, illustrates the top ten trading partners based on exports and imports with the UK in 2014 (HM Revenue and Customs, 2014).
Figure 3: Trading patterns of UK in 2014 (Source: HM Revenue and Customs, 2014)
There are various factors that influence trade between countries, with some factors encouraging trade and others deterring trade. UK has the advantage of being a member of WTO since 1995, GATT since 1948 and various RTA’s. Firstly, two factors which are interrelated with one other are political and legal factors that impact trade between UK and its partners. Despite the globalization of businesses, firms must accept and act based on local rules and regulations of the countries in which they operate or export to. Thus, global businesses need to observe and assess the political and legal climate in countries that they trade in, being goods or services.
Based on the UK trade partners, all countries except for China are pluralistic regimes that practice democracy. China is more of an authoritarian government with its strong government and limited individual rights. However, over the past two decades, China is pursuing a new balance between how much the state plans and manages the national economy. Today, China has been successful in merging state intervention with private investment to bring forth a robust, market driven economy, while still using the communist form of government (Carpenter and Dunung, 2012).
Other factors that affect international trade between trade partners of the UK include relevant policy variables: tariff, inflation, exchange and capital control, gross domestic product (GDP), import duty, and foreign direct investment. According to Raballand (2003) foreign direct investment increases the host country’s exports, although the impact on imports is considered relatively weak. When tariff barriers are present, restrictions on FDI begin to increasingly distort trade. A tariff barrier in the importing country has a negative effect which is insignificant on the effect of exports to the country. Furthermore, per capita, G.D.P and population are factors that play a significant positive impact on exports. However, distance between countries has a negative impact on trade, as trade costs that include transportation and communication increase in regards to distance (Raballand, 2003).
Standard gravity variables of distance as an indicator of transport costs play an influential role with UK and its trading partners. Countries that are UK’s trade partners are those that are a shorter distance, comprising mostly EU countries, while non-EU countries US and Canada are also a short sea and air distance from the UK, with average distance being 6,800km, and air distance equalling 4,200km. Commonly, neighbour countries have more integrated logistics network which reduces trans-shipments. Furthermore, neighbouring countries are also more likely to have transit and custom agreements that decrease the transit time and lower shipping & insurance costs. Thus, distance affects trade volumes through transportation costs. Furthermore, there are low tariff rates between organization of economic cooperation and development (OECD) countries.
International trade can be defined as the exchange of capital, goods, and services across international borders or territories. Based on the time in history, trade methods and theories have been expanding and adjusting itself. The 15th and 16th century trade was defined by mercantilism which stressed the countries should simultaneously encourage exports and discourage imports; a common concept that still resonates in modern trade policies. It was Adam Smith who can be traced back to today’s standard theory of international trade with is Wealth of Nations, followed by David Ricardo’s Principles of Economics, published in 1951. Adam Smith’s absolute advantage argued that wealth of nation depends on goods and service available to its citizens rather on gold reserves of sovereigns. Maximizing the availability depends on putting all resources to use and then on the ability to obtain goods/service; to pay for them by production of goods/service produced more cheaply in the country; and costs measured in terms of direct and embedded labour inputs.
This principle fit the development of capitalist economies based on production through wage labour. Schumacher (2012) asserts that Smith’s theory was established as a predecessor to the theory of comparative advantage. Ricardo’s comparative advantage asserts the possibility of system wide gains from trade occur even if the country has no absolute advantage in the production of no product. Helpman (2010) placed an emphasis on interactions of policies and regulatory framework with specific needs of specific sectors of the economy having a comparative advantage than others. Furthermore, Ricardian comparative advantage was implemented in importance of financial institutions for development by Beck (2003) and Manova (2008) revealing that countries with better financial development export more in sectors that have a greater tendency to depend more on external financing, based on a study of OECD countries. Levchenko (2007) has also agreed with Ricardian comparative advantage with the study asserting that countries with better rule of law have shown to export comparatively more in sectors that have lower levels of input concentration.
Although not a particular theory, the Heckscher-Ohlin model is used to evaluate international trade, specifically trade equilibriums between countries that have different features. The general principle of the model is; by trading goods, countries are indirectly trading factors that are contained in the production of those specific goods. The model was tested for the USA by Baldwin (1971) based on the country’s commodity structure. The results of the factor content of US exports and imports in 1962 by Baldwin (1971) are summarised in the table below showing that K/L higher in imports, however, the US was much more capital abundant in 1962 than compared to the rest of the world.
Table 1; Import / Export primary factors (source: Baldwin, 1971)
Factor Content of U.S. Exports and Imports for 1962
Capital per million dollars
Labour (person years) per million dollars
Capital-labour ratio (dollars per worker)
Average years of education per worker
Proportion of engineers and scientists in work force
Lastly, the New Trade Theory (NTT) is a collective economic model in international trade that places an emphasis on the role of increasing returns to scale and network effects. The assumption of constant returns to scale are relaxed. An important source and destination for FDI has become high income industrialised countries such as the UK. Just in 1997 the total outward FDI stock of US, Japan, and the EU was equal to 1560 billion GBP with 63% of this amount concerned FDI stock just within EU, Japan, and US (UN Intl Trade Stats, 1997; WIR, 1999).
Since, there has been an increase in both intra- and inter industry trade between more developed and industrialised countries, the NTT has been increasing its effort to support the increased importance of trade between industrialised countries and the frequency intra-industry specialisation between them. Using the NTT as a premise, Markusen and Venables (1998) develop a framework to analyse the increasing importance of FDI in regards to trade in the world economy. Using a two country model, Markusen and Venables (1998) assert that the convergence of countries in size and relative endowments moves the trend from national to multinational firms; known as convergence hypothesis, in which multinational production displaces national firms and trade as the two countries converge either by relative size, relative factor endowments, or relative production costs. This is evident with the US-UK trade relationship with UK’s comprising of 25% share in the American economy (The Economist, 2013). The leading importers of UK’s Oxford made BMW’s Mini are USA, Germany, China, and France (The Economist, 2015). The same relationship can be seen with UK-EU countries. According to the chart below, by 2012 Britain’s exports and imports largely depended on goods and services from EU countries.
 Baldwin, R., 1971. ‘Determinants of the commodity structure of U.S. trade’. American Economic Review, 61, 126-145.
Figure 4: Trade trends of UK in 2012 (Source: ONS, 2012)
It is an accepted idea that free trade benefits all countries in the world; although, hardly any country has practiced free trade policies thoroughly. However, UK believes in free trade as the economy is dependent on foreign trade making the government support free and unrestricted trade. Due to its dependency on trade, the UK has few restrictions on foreign trade and investment. Furthermore, the strength of the Great Britain Pound and its state economy has made the country an attractive investment place for foreign investors. The UK government has adopted numerous programs to promote and attract foreign businesses and investments. One of the key programs has been allowing local and regional governments to establish enterprise zones in which companies receive exemptions from property taxes and reimbursements for costs that are involved in the construction of new factories or business locations. The country also hosts free trade zones in the UK allowing goods to be stored for shipment without tariffs or import duties.
The UK and its top ten trade partners vary in relative size, trade policies, and population. However, since 2014 the UK has been trading with these particular countries further strengthening its ties. The UK believes in free-trade and this idea is expressed with its trade policies and willingness to persuade other countries to promote such policies for themselves. This is evident from the countries current negotiation of international trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and US (GOV UK, 2015). Furthermore, the UK is expanding using the EU’s free trade agreement with South Korea, allowing UK companies to do business there as well (GOV UK, 2015).
Based on UK’s top ten trading partner, it is evident that the trade policies associated with the country are more related to the New Trade Theory (NTT) as it is currently trading in terms of volume of import and export with fellow highly industrialised countries. This is due to factors of lower tariffs with EU countries, and relatively closer distance to trade in terms of communication and transport with these countries. All of UK’s trading partners are large democracies with pluralistic regimes, except for China. This aids in trading being carried out more smoothly due to commonality between laws and regulations. There is also strong political stability within these countries which decrease the change of risk that UK companies may face in countries with political instability.
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