Exporters in the region are buoyant about their 2018 trade prospects with 34% expecting overseas sales to increase over the next six months, according to the latest Business in Britain report from Lloyds Bank.
This is on the back of a strong end to 2017 in which a net balance of 24% said their international trade had increased in the second half of the year.
Around two in five (43%) of the region’s businesses currently export their goods or services – above the national average of 40% and up marginally from 42% six months ago.
While some are facing new challenges, with 38% of South East exporters deciding to focus more on UK sales in light of Brexit, most are optimistic about what lies ahead.
Stephen Hand, South East area director for global transaction banking, SME at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, said: “Exporters across the South East still see international trade playing an important role in their plans, despite the continued climate of domestic and international uncertainty.
“The number of firms doing business overseas is rising and judging from firms’ export performances over the previous six months, the region’s confidence is not misplaced.
“Although there are some businesses that are re-focusing on UK operations, exporting is still a healthy growth strategy for those looking to manage risk during periods of uncertainty.
“We’d encourage firms to explore the exporting opportunities available to them, and to target international markets which suit their business model best.”
The Business in Britain report, now in its 26th year, gathers the views of more than 1,500 UK companies, including 264 in the South East, and tracks a range of performance and confidence measures.
Based on their current overseas trading, the current top three most popular partner countries for South East firms are the USA, Germany and France, with 20, 15 and 14% of companies respectively exporting to these countries.
Looking ahead, exporters in the region expect the biggest opportunities for international trade to come from the USA (28%), followed by China (18%) and Germany (8%).
Hand added: “South East exporters continue to see the trade market in the USA as the promised land as they look to pre-emptively tackle the impact of a potential loss of access to the EU single market.
“Given the familiarity of UK businesses with the products and culture of the USA, and the fact they are primarily English-speaking, it is understandable that this is a key target for the region’s exporters.
“It is encouraging, however, to see that exporters are not neglecting other countries that may be less familiar and are targeting fast-growing markets outside the European single market, like China.”
Ben Raby, regional director for the South East at the Department for International Trade, added: “It’s encouraging to see that South East businesses are among some of the most ambitious in the UK when it comes to international expansion over the next six months. Overseas demand for British goods and services is strong and companies across the region are set to benefit from this.
“We’re providing support to local firms through the Exporting is GREAT campaign, supported by our strategic partners, including Lloyds. With the support of over 30 dedicated international trade advisers, our combined efforts are helping companies overcome any potential hurdles to make the most of the exporting opportunity.”
But there are still questions about the quality and relevance of DIT trade advisers advice, as many SMEs in particular will testify. Philip Bell, UK International Trade Service’s CEO confirmed it, saying “We still find that most businesses coming to us for practical help have already had contact with a DIT adviser and been less than impressed with the result. Usually it is a lack of specific help tailored to their individual needs, and often it is because any help seems to come at a cost.
“It seems to confirm the need for an alternative to the government’s establishment support, and the benefit of a dedicated hands-on service from the private sector to complement the hands-off guidance available from the public sector”.
The South East may be doing well, but the rest of country needs to do better. UKITS is available to any and every UK business wanting help with any aspect of international trade, inbound or outbound.