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In uncertain times, agility is a necessity for exporters

Paul Raleigh

As global planned exports hits an 18-month high, exporters must balance improving economic fundamentals with sudden national trade policy shifts.

Our IBR global business executive survey found that export expectations hit an 18-month high in the first quarter of 2017 after years of economic stimulus by governments and central banks take hold.  However, geopolitical events, such as Brexit and the US withdrawal from TPP, are creating uncertainty about the future direction of multilateral trade agreements.   

Improving economic fundamentals fuel export and investment expectations

Export expectations are up in the G7 (+3pp) and the EU (+2pp) from Q4 2016. This suggests businesses are aiming to tap into the US market, resurgent under the new political administration. The strong US dollar puts imports at a competitive advantage compared to local products.

At the same time, the proportion of US businesses planning to increase investment in plant & machinery over the next 12 months has shot up to 41% in Q1 2017 (figure one) – the highest figure for three years. Providers of capital goods in other countries, which hope to meet that demand, have responded – Germany (export plans up 13pp) being a prime example.

Geopolitical events increasing uncertainty around trade deals

However, recent and upcoming political developments have the potential to upset emerging and long-standing multilateral trade agreements in favour of bilateral trade agreements and protectionist trade policies. The rise of populism in the US and parts of Europe is leading to sudden shifts in trade policies that are usually negotiated over long periods, creating an uncertain environment for exporters.

In Canada for example, export expectations fell significantly in Q1 (-10pp) – which coincided with the new US administration declaring it may scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In recent weeks, however, it appears NAFTA may be renegotiated rather than ended. It will be interesting to see how firms in Canada and Mexico respond next quarter.

Meanwhile the upcoming EU-UK Brexit negotiations and German federal elections have the potential to disrupt long standing trading arrangements with ramifications for the European single market and beyond.  Businesses will need to monitor these events and assess the impact to their existing export plans.

On the other hand, the US and China have just announced a series of major trade deals. The impact on global trade flows could be sizeable. These are the world’s two biggest economies and if the amount they sell to each other increases, we could see a positive knock-on effect ripple through American and Chinese business supply chains.

These uncertain times require business agility

Despite the uncertainty regarding future trade policies, the underlying economic fundamentals are improving which will provide opportunities for exporters.  Therefore, to seize the opportunities in these dynamic environments, exporters will need to build agility into their business.

Exporters will need to remain vigilant and put in place mechanisms that enable them to spot and assess the impacts of changes in trade policy on their traditional markets while seeking opportunities in new markets.

Technological advances could also provide growth opportunities for exporters by enabling them to access and compete in new markets while improving their responsiveness to changes in demand.  Businesses should not view technological disruption as a threat but instead embrace technology as a means to improve their agility and flexibility empowering them to react swiftly to sudden shifts in trade policies and new opportunities. 

Figure 1

Graph showing US plant and machinery investment

For further information please contact:

Andrew Brosnan, insight and thought leadership, Grant Thornton