The impact of sterling’s depreciation has been underwhelming for a few reasons. For one thing, firms are locked into global supply chains and rely heavily on foreign inputs. Half the components in a “British-made” car come from abroad. If exports rise, so do imports.
The economy is also highly geared towards high-value-added stuff like pharmaceuticals. Buyers of these goods and services are insensitive to price changes. Not all industries fit this mould, notably tourism. Dollars buy more rides on the London Eye than before. In June visits by foreigners (including businesspeople) were up by 7% year on year. Yet visitors seem to be economising: their overall spending in real terms is no higher than before.
Optimists maintain that the benefits of a depreciation take a long time to filter through. Firms need to get finance together and seek out new markets to exploit their new competitive advantage.
The case of Dr Fox’s ice-cream industry, however, suggests that exporters are in no rush. Though export revenues have risen, this largely reflects the fact that with a weaker pound a given quantity of foreign-currency sales leads to higher sterling revenues. In the first half of 2017 firms exported about the same quantity of ice cream (600m scoops, by our reckoning) as in the same period the year before. Firms seem to be using sterling’s weakness simply to bank bigger profits, rather than to move into new markets.
It is a similar story across the private sector. Profitability is near record highs yet investment is stalling. Last year non-financial firms stuck an extra £74bn ($96bn) in their bank accounts, by far the largest figure on record. Firms’ tentative behaviour should be a wake-up call for ministers, who expect them to lead the charge of a reorientation of British trade away from the EU after Brexit.
All other factors being equal a depreciating currency boosts the prospects for exporters because they gain competitiveness. The bigger the domestic export sector the more immediate the boost. In the UK’s case the domestic manufacturing sector has been in decline for decades, so not only will it take time to rebuild confidence enough so that entrepreneurs become more ambitious but the devaluation would need to persist.Click HERE to subscribe to Fuller Treacy Money Back to top