Shipping containers  on the dockside at the port of Southampton
Shipping containers on the dockside at the port of Southampton © Bloomberg

Statisticians are investigating the delicate matter of why the trade balance between the UK and the US does not balance.

At various times over the past decade, the UK and the US have both simultaneously recorded a trade surplus with each other. The discrepancy has become uncomfortable as the UK focuses on trade once it has left the EU and Donald Trump takes aim at the US’s trade deficits with other countries.

Last year, for example, the UK claimed a £10bn goods trade surplus with the US, according to official statistics, while the US said it had recorded a surplus of $1bn.

The inconsistency remains even after taking variations in the exchange rate and in reporting data into account. The Office for National Statistics said the gap between the US and the UK figures is the widest in the 40-member OECD, the club of mostly rich nations.

The ONS said it has put the numbers “under close scrutiny” in the hope of improving them before they complicate future trade negotiations. It added the Department for International Trade was aware that statisticians have made it a priority to iron out the differences.

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Marianne Schneider-Petsinger, an economics fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, suggested the UK choose not to use its own data during any trade talks and “refer to US data to move the relationship forward”.

Adrian Chesson at the ONS said statisticians on both sides of the Atlantic were working together “to try to reduce the size of the asymmetries” but they first needed to “better understand what the reasons are”.

One suggested explanation for the discrepancy is that the US recognises the Channel Islands as part of the UK, which does not include them because they are self-governing Crown dependencies.

“It’s clear from our manuals and guidance that we should exclude them from the UK,” said Mr Chesson.

The use of the Channel Islands as an offshore financial centre may affect the numbers. Jersey alone is host to almost 33,000 active companies, 27 banks with deposits of about £114bn and more than 1,000 investment funds. Of the companies, 91 with a combined market capitalisation of £279bn trade on global stock exchanges. 

In services, COMTRADE, the UN trade statistics database, shows that the US claims a services trade surplus of $13bn with the UK, which claims a services surplus of more than $34bn with the US.

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