ONS rebuffs reports over £500 billion in 'missing' UK assets

Updated: 

Britain's statistics agency has rebuffed reports that half a trillion pounds worth of UK-held foreign assets has gone "missing".

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) blog post on Monday addressed a recent revision to the UK's net International Investment Position (IIP) figure, which was the focus of a Daily Telegraph report last week.

That figure measures the difference between all the foreign assets - including shares, bonds, property and money - held by individuals and businesses in the UK, versus the total UK assets held by businesses and individuals overseas.

The ONS revised its 2016 estimate down from a surplus of around £470 billion, to around minus £20 billion - a move which the Daily Telegraph described as a "massive write-down" in Britain's stock of wealth and deprived the UK of its "safety margin as Brexit talks reach a crucial juncture".

But in the ONS blog post, deputy national statistician Jonathan Athow noted that, given that the net IIP is the difference between two very large numbers, "small changes in the valuation of UK assets and liabilities can have large effects".

He summed up the question of whether £500 billion had gone missing by tweeting that the "short answer" was "no". "Longer answer, it's complicated."

Mr Athow said that the value of assets held abroad in foreign currency rose compared to those held in the UK, adding that the change was "mostly due" to the depreciation of the pound following the Brexit vote.

The ONS was able to "refine" its initial estimates by including new data and sources for measuring bond and share holdings, as well as large foreign takeovers of UK businesses.

This resulted in the revision to minus £20 billion, he explained.

"But this does not mean any money went missing, merely that slightly more UK assets were held by foreign investors than we originally estimated," Mr Athow said.

"The UK still holds around £10.94 trillion of assets in the other countries, it's just we now estimate foreign holdings in the UK rose to around £10.97 trillion."