Businesses are failing to develop plans for international trade, despite the government calling on SMEs to help drive a UK export-led recovery, according to Bibby Financial Services.

Bibby’s business factors index reveals that just 15% of SMEs were trading overseas in the first quarter of 2012. Instead, the majority of business owners (62%) were looking to cut costs and overheads in order to combat difficult trading conditions.

Only 2% of firms are looking to broaden their horizons and have identified international trade as an activity to form part of their business growth plans in 2012.

UK chancellor George Osborne has been hoping that an increase in exports will counterbalance the government’s continued austerity measures, but only 5% of UK firms think greater support for businesses trading internationally will help stimulate an economic recovery.

Instead, 18% feel keeping interest rates the same would have the biggest positive impact on the future economic climate, according to Bibby.

Additionally, the Office for National Statistics reported a widening in the UK trade deficit to £3.4bn in February, up from £2.5bn in January, due mainly to an 8.8% fall in exports to non-EU countries.

More than half of business owners (55%) said the general economic climate was providing their greatest barrier to exporting, while 21% pinpointed a lack of available finance.

Mark Riches, sales director of international trade finance at Bibby says: “The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal the UK just isn’t exporting its way to a recovery, and with our own research revealing few firms are buying into George Osborne’s vision, it seems unlikely that the UK will see a significant improvement in the trade deficit in the near future.

He believes that the greatest challenges for many SMEs in moving from a national to an international operation will be overcoming the exchange rate fluctuations, coping with extended payment terms and maintaining a healthy cash flow.

Bibby’s index revealed almost half (45%) of UK firms have seen lapsed customers returning in the first three months of 2012, with a further 41% welcoming new customers.

According to Riches, opportunities to maximise growth, including those in foreign markets “should be high on the business agenda”.