Ongoing uncertainty about Brexit is dampening appetites for international trade among UK businesses, according to a new report.
Data from the latest Global Trade Barometer from the international payments company WorldFirst has indicated that the number of British small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) trading internationally dropped to just 26 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2017, down from 52 per cent at the end of 2016.
This means that 1.5 million fewer UK SMEs were trading internationally last year, with 75 per cent of businesses surveyed saying they expect trade to decline or remain stagnant over the next 12 months.
WorldFirst's report indicated that conditions declined over the course of the year, with 31 per cent of firms planning to export in the first quarter of 2017, dropping to 29 per cent by the final quarter.
This indicates that the expectation that recent devaluations of the pound would result in higher exports have been dashed, amid a backdrop of inflation concerns and persistent confusion regarding the progress of the government's Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Despite this, by the fourth quarter of 2017 41 per cent of companies said they felt positive about the prospect of Brexit, up from 33 per cent in the first quarter of the year. Moreover, the number of UK traders exporting across all global regions including western Europe, North America and Asia also rose during the year, suggesting that signs of recovery may be on the horizon.
Jeremy Cook, chief economist at WorldFirst, said: "Since the end of 2016, a significantly larger contingent of small businesses feel positive about leaving the EU. The pound is stronger than it's been since the referendum and many SMEs may finally have plans in place for a post-Brexit world.
"We can only hope this translates into businesses dusting themselves off and getting back to international trading in 2018."