World merchandise trade growth is expected to remain strong in 2018 and 2019 after posting its largest increase in six years in 2017, but continued expansion depends on robust global economic growth and governments pursuing appropriate monetary, fiscal and especially trade policies, WTO economists said.
The WTO anticipates merchandise international trade volume growth of 4.4% in 2018, as measured by the average of exports and imports, roughly matching the 4.7% increase recorded for 2017. Growth is expected to moderate to 4.0% in 2019, below the average rate of 4.8% since 1990 but still firmly above the post-crisis average of 3.0%. However, there are signs that escalating international trade war may already be affecting business confidence and investment decisions, which could compromise the current outlook.
“The strong trade growth that we are seeing today will be vital for continued economic growth and recovery and to support job creation. However, this important progress could be quickly undermined if governments resort to restrictive trade policies, especially in a tit-for-tat process that could lead to an unmanageable escalation. A cycle of retaliation is the last thing the world economy needs. The pressing trade problems confronting WTO Members is best tackled through collective action. I urge governments to show restraint and settle their differences through dialogue and serious engagement,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo.
Trade volume growth in 2017, the strongest since 2011, was driven mainly by cyclical factors, particularly increased investment and consumption expenditure. Looking at the situation in value terms, growth rates in current US dollars in 2017 (10.7% for merchandise exports, 7.4% for commercial services exports) were even stronger, reflecting both increasing quantities and rising prices. Merchandise trade volume growth in 2017 may also have been inflated somewhat by the weakness of trade over the previous two years, which provided a lower base for the current expansion.
Until recently, risks to the forecast appeared to be more balanced than at any time since the financial crisis. However, in light of recent trade policy developments they must now be considered to be tilted to the downside. Increased use of restrictive trade policy measures and the uncertainty they bring to businesses and consumers could produce cycles of retaliation that would weigh heavily on global trade and output. Faster monetary tightening by central banks could trigger fluctuations in exchange rates and capital flows that could be equally disruptive to trade flows. Finally, worsening geopolitical tensions could be counted on to reduce trade flows, although the magnitude of their impact is unpredictable. Technological change means that conflicts could increasingly take the form of cyber-attacks, which could impact services trade as much or more than goods trade.
On the other hand, there is some upside potential if structural reforms and more expansionary fiscal policy cause economic growth and trade to accelerate in the short run. The fact that all regions are experiencing upswings in trade and output at the same time could also make recovery more self-sustaining and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.