Global Trade Outlook and Statistics

05.31.2023

The outlook for the global economy has slightly improved since the WTO’s most recent trade forecast was issued in October of last year but the pace of trade expansion in 2023 is still expected to be subpar, weighed down by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, stubbornly high inflation, tighter monetary policy and financial uncertainty.

Trade volume growth

WTO economists are now projecting merchandise trade volume growth of 1.7% in 2023 — up from last October’s estimate of 1.0% — accompanied by real GDP growth of 2.4% at market exchange rates. Growth rates for trade and output this year are expected to be below their respective averages of 2.6% and 2.7% for the 12 years since the trade collapse that followed the global financial crisis.

Trade growth should rebound to 3.2% in 2024 as GDP growth picks up to 2.6%, but this estimate is more uncertain than usual due to the presence of substantial downside risks, including rising geopolitical tensions, global food insecurity, the possibility of unforeseen fallouts from monetary tightening, risks to financial stability and increasing levels of debt.

Goods trade was more resilient than expected for most of 2022 despite the drag exerted by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Year-on-year merchandise trade volume growth averaged 4.2% in the first three quarters of 2022 before a 2.4% quarter-on-quarter decline in the fourth quarter dragged growth for the year down to 2.7%. The final result for 2022 was weaker than the WTO’s October forecast of 3.5% but close to the earlier estimate of 3.0% from last April, which relied on simulations to gauge the economic impact of the conflict.

A 2.7% increase in trade volume in 2022 is consistent with the WTO’s initial report on the crisis in Ukraine, which estimated that trade growth for the year would fall somewhere between 2.4% and 3.0%. The final figure ended up being within this range and well above the most pessimistic scenario considered in the report, which would have seen trade growth of just 0.5% if countries had split into competing trade blocs. Fragmentation has mostly been avoided but it remains a significant threat, which could hinder economic growth and reduce living standards over the long term. The fact that worst-case scenarios were avoided in 2022 should not be a cause for complacency.

Drivers of trade volume

Geopolitical tensions, inflation (and related measures), energy and other commodity prices, and the lingering effects of COVID-19 were the main drivers of trade and output in 2022. Last year saw some of the highest inflation rates since the 1980s together with massive swings in commodity prices and an appreciation of the US dollar. Since strong price movements tend to distort trade statistics in value terms, it makes sense to focus on trade volumes when forecasting trade.

The forecast incorporates mixed-data sampling (MIDAS) techniques that use higher-frequency data for selected economies (specifically, monthly statistics on container throughput in US and Chinese ports) to improve the quality of estimates. Since the pandemic, this information has helped capture the impacts of port congestion and supply chain disruptions on trade. If current GDP assumptions hold, merchandise trade volume growth in 2023 could be as low as −2.8% or as high as 4.7%. Trade growth for the current year could also fall outside of this range if economic conditions change.

Trade developments in value terms

This report is released in conjunction with the WTO’s preliminary annual trade statistics for 2022 as well as quarterly statistics for Q4 of 2022, covering both merchandise and commercial services trade. The data can be downloaded via the WTO website or from the WTO’s online database.

Merchandise trade

World merchandise trade as measured by the average of the dollar value of exports and imports rose 12% in 2022 to US$ 25.26 trillion. This growth is slow compared to 2021, when merchandise trade recorded a 27% rebound following a 5.3% decline in 2020. Global merchandise trade in 2022 was also up 32% compared to its pre-pandemic level in 2019.

The fastest growing sectors were those related to energy. In 2022, growth in fuel trade was 61%. This growth came on the back of a similarly large increase in 2021, mainly reflecting rising energy prices.

Services trade

The value of trade in commercial services as measured by the average of exports and imports rose 15% in 2022 to US$ 6.8 trillion. All broad sectors recorded growth. Transport had another record year, with trade up by 25% in 2022, and 40% above 2019 levels. However, growth slowed as shipping rates started to decline steadily since the spring. This reflects in part the shift back to consumers’ spending on services as the health situation normalized in most countries. On the other hand, the difficult economic and geopolitical context, high inflation, and soaring energy and commodity prices have reduced demand.

The slowdown in goods-related services trade in 2022 points to decreased contract manufacturing activities (i.e. goods processing on a contract basis such as assembly, packaging, labelling, etc.) in other countries. Freight transport rates have now largely returned to pre-pandemic levels. In the week ending 31 March 2023, the global spot market rate for 40-foot container units was down to US$ 1,481, just 14% above 2019 prices in the same period. As prices continue to fall, the outlook for the shipping sector is bleak at least for the first half of 2023 (source: Freightos).

Other indicators

The WTO tracks a number of trade-related economic indicators to identify current trends in merchandise and commercial services trade. Some of these are presented here to provide additional context to the forecast.

One useful indicator is container throughput of major ports, which tracks global goods trade quite closely. The RWI/ISL container index combines data on total throughput of 94 ports accounting for 64% of total container handling worldwide. The latest data showed a weak start to 2023, with a seasonally- adjusted decline from 122.4 in December to 120.2 points in January. The decline was strongest in Northern European ports, the index value of which dropped from 109.0 to 6.6, while throughput of Chinese ports remained stable. This is consistent with our forecast showing a small 0.6% decline in imports of Europe and a modest 2.6% increase in exports of Asia.

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