The World Trade Organisation released its annual bout of trade statistics and forecasts today. Clearly, the data show that the global slump in trade growth persists, despite prospects for a mild recovery.
World trade posted a 1.3 percent expansion in 2016, lower than the 1.7 percent forecast by the world trade body in Geneva.
A closer look at the data reveal that Europe as a whole drove trade growth in 2016. It did so alongside Asia – despite China’s structural economic and trade slowdown. Indeed, Europe’s contribution to global import demand was 39 percent of the total increase, and Asia’s 49 percent.
Yet there is an area of darkness in the European trade: Brexit.
The reasons for the global trade downturn witnessed since the financial crisis of 2008 are both structural and cyclical. The reason for Europe’s relatively better trade data are also partly structural.
WTO research reveals that imported content of German investment rose from 24 percent in 1995 to 38 percent in 2014. In China, the opposite is happening: imports made up 30 percent of Chinese investments in 2004, only to contribute to 18 percent of investments ten years later. “These changes could conceivably alter the geographic distribution of trade, with stronger trade in Europe and weaker trade in Asia”, the WTO report reads.
The WTO’s forecast of 2017 trade growth is rather non committal. Its economists cautiously set it at 2.4 percent. More importantly, their forecast is place in a rather broad range of possible outcomes, between 1.8 and 3.6 percent. The WTO report insists strongly on the currently very volatile political environment, and the risk of a slide into protectionism as a “downside risk”.
“[P]olicy shocks could easily undermine positive recent trends”, the WTO notes, citing macroeconomic risks such as inflation and monetary tightening. “Other factors such as the uncertainty provoked by the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union could potentially have an effect” too, so WTO forecasters.
Britain stands out in another way too in this WTO report: statistically.
Whereas France increased its exports by 1 percent in 2016, Britain saw a dramatic decrease in exports by 11.9 percent. The British trend has been notable for several years. Yet the fall in the value of the British pound in the summer 2016 does not yet seem to have translated into a better goods export performance. More worryingly for Britain is its services export performance. Whereas the country posts a healthy surplus in services, British exports of commercial services fell by 5.2 percent in 2016. In contrast, German services exports grew by 2.8 percent. Again the fall in the value of the pound post Brexit referendum in June last year has not helped British exporters.
Why the UK has done so badly remains to be investigated thoroughly. As a capital exporter with its strongly US-focused financial sector it is probable that the dramatic drop in investments seen last year in North America due to low energy prices could have been a contributing factor.
In the current circumstances, where – absence of political shocks permitting – Europe seems to be a stable anchor in world trade, Britain’s idea to untie itself from the rest of the EU appears even more irrational than it already is to many trade experts.