International trade: a key source of business confidence

UK companies are optimistic about the future. But, as our latest Trade Barometer research shows, it is those businesses with international aspirations that are most likely to take a positive view.


The summer edition of the Santander Trade Barometer paints a vivid picture of the major contradiction evident in the UK economy right now. While British businesses say they are very concerned about the environment in which they operate, they also report a high level of confidence in their own ability to prosper over the coming years.

In this wave of research, we continued to survey more than 1,000 businesses to capture their views towards international trading. The latest results reveals almost three-quarters (73%) of these businesses are confident they will grow over the next three years. But 43% of the companies surveyed warn that an economic slowdown in the UK is a threat to their business over the next 12 months, while the same proportion are concerned about the negative impact of Brexit.

Response to external challenges

Faced with these external challenges, businesses are responding in two ways. Firstly, they are starting to take action domestically - for example, more companies now plan to reduce or freeze headcount, cut overheads or pause salary increases and new investment. Secondly, businesses are looking abroad – two-thirds (66%) say they plan to expand internationally over the next 12 months, partly in order to reduce the impact of the uncertain economic climate in the UK.

Indeed, the Trade Barometer offers valuable insight into what is driving the optimism of more confident businesses, such as plans to expand internationally. Companies looking to start trading abroad at some point in the next six months are far more likely to expect future growth than those with no plans to start selling overseas.

Support every step of the way

Therefore, for the 31% of companies that see themselves as largely domestic, what are the barriers to international success? Essentially, they boil down to two challenges: identifying the opportunity and making it happen.

The Trade Barometer shows that banks continue to top the list of sources (with 33%) businesses would seek guidance from when looking to expand internationally. But the support provided by banks is unlikely to materially transform the export space if it's limited only to product solutions offered after trade has happened. It has to be much more than that. A bank, together with key, like-minded ecosystem partners domestically and abroad, has to offer a deep, holistic and tailored proposition in order to help broaden and facilitate the activities trading abroad.

New opportunities for growth

This is especially the case given the questions Brexit is raising about the future of global trading. Given nearly half of UK trade is with Europe, this market will always be crucial for the UK but SMEs are likely to need help here in trading in ways different to what they have been accustomed to. At the same time, other growing markets in the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Africa will become increasingly important for ambitious and competitive SMEs. It will be vital for businesses to have the right support exploring these new opportunities, both in traditional and new markets.

The survey underlines the importance of international trading companies in how their growth-focussed mindset powers local and national economies. However, trading with overseas markets is rarely straightforward, whether a business is exporting for the first time or expanding existing international operations. But it doesn’t have to be daunting. With the right support, British businesses can connect with vital opportunities for future growth.

Read more about the Santander Trade Barometer.

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