Escalating trade tensions and a slowing global economy have led WTO economists to sharply downgrade their forecasts for trade growth in 2019 and 2020. World merchandise trade volumes are now expected to rise by only 1.2% in 2019, substantially slower than the 2.6% growth forecast in April. The projected increase in 2020 is now 2.7%, down from 3.0% previously. The economists caution that downside risks remain high and that the 2020 projection depends on a return to more normal trade relations.
“The darkening outlook for trade is discouraging but not unexpected. Beyond their direct effects, trade conflicts heighten uncertainty, which is leading some businesses to delay the productivity-enhancing investments that are essential to raising living standards,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. “Job creation may also be hampered as firms employ fewer workers to produce goods and services for export.”
“Resolving trade disagreements would allow WTO members to avoid such costs,” the WTO Director-General added. “The multilateral trading system remains the most important global forum for settling differences and providing solutions for the challenges of the 21st century global economy. Members should work together in a spirit of cooperation to reform the WTO and make it even stronger and more effective.”
The updated trade forecast is based on consensus estimates of world GDP growth of 2.3% at market exchange rates for both 2019 and 2020, down from 2.6% previously. Slowing economic growth is partly due to rising trade tensions but also reflects country-specific cyclical and structural factors, including the shifting monetary policy stance in developed economies and Brexit-related uncertainty in the European Union. Macroeconomic risks are firmly tilted to the downside.
Due to the high degree of uncertainty associated with trade forecasts under current conditions, the estimated growth rate for world trade in 2019 is placed within a range of 0.5% to 1.6%. Trade growth could fall below this range if trade tensions continue to build, or outperform it if they start to recede. The range of likely values is wider for 2020, ranging from 1.7% to 3.7%, with better outcomes depending on an easing of trade tensions.
Risks to the forecast are heavily weighted to the downside and dominated by trade policy. Further rounds of tariffs and retaliation could produce a destructive cycle of recrimination. Shifting monetary and fiscal policies could destabilize volatile financial markets. A sharper slowing of the global economy could produce an even bigger downturn in trade. Finally, a disorderly Brexit could have a significant regional impact, mostly confined to Europe.