The West Midlands is on course to report an export surplus for the first time in 15 years next year as international trade continues to soar.
Experts predict the region will export more goods than it imports for the first time since 1998 on the back of a manufacturing renaissance led by Jaguar Land Rover.
It would represent a remarkable turnaround for trade in the region, as last year it imported more than £11 billion more goods than it exported and has generally seen its export deficit grow year-on year.
However, exports have grown by 30 per cent in the region since 2011 – which is 15 times the UK average of two per cent and indeed country-wide exports would have dipped were it not for growth in the West Midlands.
Currently the North East is the only UK region which exports more than it imports, but it sells less than half of the goods the West Midlands does abroad and has seen a 12 per cent fall since 2011.
Paul Noon, West Midlands international trade director at UK Trade and Investment, said the surge in business overseas meant his target to double exports from the West Midlands in nine years was in place to be met within seven.
However, he highlighted skills issues and languages as a barrier to continuing the growth.
He said: “Our target is to double exports by 2020. If we keep going the way we are we will have done it by 2018.
“A lot of people say I have created a noose for myself with these predictions, but as far as I am concerned, we will double them, and then once that has happened we’ll look to double again.
“There are some game-changing things we can look at – things around languages and being in markets where you can grow most quickly, and where there is most possibility to grow.
“If we carry on at this rate it is possible.”
He added: “As a region we are not in surplus yet, but we are heading towards it.
“Growth in imports has generally been smaller than growth in exports, and I am confident we’ll head into surplus soon.”
Exports account for more than a fifth of gross value-added (GVA) in the West Midlands, and the region sells 11.6 per cent of the goods shipped abroad from the UK.
While HMRC trade statistics only chart the funds raised from selling goods, Mr Noon said the region has enjoyed a similar rise in the export of services.
The 30 per cent rise the region has seen since the first quarter of 2011 compares to a fall of more than a fifth in London, 12 per cent in the North West and North East, and a slight fall in the South East.
The East Midlands is the next best performing, up 15 per cent, followed by the South West, up 10 per cent and Yorkshire and the Humber, up seven per cent.
The rise in exports from the West Midlands – in tandem with the rise in sales to China – has been driven by the automotive sector, which accounted for 43.5 per cent of exports in the first quarter of the year.
However, Mr Noon said the data showed that there was more to West Midlands exports than Jaguar Land Rover and its supply chain.
He explained: “Our exports grew by £1 billion in the last quarter. Since 2011 the whole of that sector has only gone up by £1 billion. This shows automotive isn’t the whole story, but it is a big part of it.”
He said JLR had played a major role, and believed it has more potential for growth.
He added: “I think companies are growing at an exponential rate. It is not only Jaguar Land Rover – if we didn’t have Jaguar Land Rover we’d be talking about JCB or Carillion.
“But the scope for Jaguar Land Rover is huge – they are nowhere near the likes of BMW. There is a lot of potential for growth. It is a cyclical business, the automotive sector, but they are doing all the right things.”
The region’s export rise has largely come from growth regions, like the Far East, Russia and Brazil.
Meanwhile, issues with the eurozone have meant exports have gone backwards in the European Union – but Mr Noon said there was evidence that was about to turn round.
However, he said a shortage of engineering skills continued to threaten growth potential.
He is also calling for more to be done to improve language skills in West Midlands businesses.
He said: “It is costing this country billions of pounds a year that we don’t have enough people who speak enough languages.
“We need to have people speaking Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic.
“I have spoken to the Chamber of Commerce about engaging with skills and encouraging more youngsters to learn languages.
“While it is true that English is the international language of business, this is really an important thing going forward.
“It gives you and edge, and is also respectful.”