WTO forecasts rebound in global trade

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

Global goods trade is expected to pick up gradually this year following a contraction in 2023 that was driven by the lingering effects of high energy prices and inflation, WTO economists said in a new forecast.

The volume of world merchandise trade should increase by 2.6 percent in 2024 and 3.3 percent in 2025 after falling 1.2 percent in 2023. However, regional conflicts, geopolitical tensions and economic policy uncertainty pose substantial downside risks to the forecast.

In the latest “Global Trade Outlook and Statistics” report, WTO economists note that inflationary pressures are expected to abate this year, allowing real incomes to grow again — particularly in advanced economies — thus providing a boost to the consumption of manufactured goods. A recovery of demand for tradeable goods in 2024 is already evident, with indices of new export orders pointing to improving conditions for trade at the start of the year.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said: “We are making progress towards global trade recovery, thanks to resilient supply chains and a solid multilateral trading framework — which are vital for improving livelihoods and welfare. It’s imperative that we mitigate risks like geopolitical strife and trade fragmentation to maintain economic growth and stability.”

High energy prices and inflation continued to weigh heavily on demand for manufactured goods, resulting in a 1.2 percent decline in world merchandise trade volume for 2023. The decline was larger in value terms, with merchandise exports down five percent to US$ 24.01 trillion. Trade developments on the services side were more upbeat, with commercial services exports up nine percent to US$ 7.54 trillion, partly offsetting the decline in goods trade.

Import volumes were down in most regions but especially in Europe, where they fell sharply. The main exceptions were large fuel-exporting economies, whose imports were sustained by strong export revenues as energy prices remained high by historical standards. World trade remained well above its pre-pandemic level throughout 2023. By the fourth quarter it was nearly unchanged compared to the same period in the 2022 (+0.1 percent) and had only risen slightly compared to the same period in 2021 (+0.5 percent).

The report further estimates global GDP growth at market exchange rates will remain mostly stable over the next two years at 2.6 percent in 2024 and 2.7 percent in 2025, after slowing to 2.7 percent in 2023 from 3.1 percent in 2022. The contrast between the steady growth of real GDP and the slowdown in real merchandise trade volume is linked to inflationary pressures, which had a downward effect on consumption of trade-intensive goods, particularly in Europe and North America.

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Downside risks

Moving forward, the report warns that geopolitical tensions and policy uncertainty could limit the extent of the trade rebound. Food and energy prices could again be subject to price spikes linked to geopolitical events. The report’s special analytical section on the Red Sea crisis notes that while the economic impact of the Suez Canal disruptions stemming from the Middle East conflict has so far been relatively limited, some sectors, such as automotive products, fertilizers and retail, have already been affected by delays and freight costs hikes.

The report presents new data indicating that geopolitical tensions have affected trade patterns marginally but have not triggered a sustained trend toward deglobalization. Bilateral trade between the United States and China, which reached a record high in 2022, grew 30 percent less in 2023 than did their trade with the rest of the world. For the whole of 2023, global trade in non-fuel intermediate goods — which provides a useful gauge of the status of global value chains — was down six percent.

Signs of fragmentation may also be emerging in services trade: US imports of information, computer, and telecommunications (ICT) services from North American trading partners (mostly Canada) increased from 15.7 percent of total ICT imports in 2018 to 23 percent in 2023 while US imports of the same from Asian trading partners (mostly India) fell from 45.1 percent to 32.6 percent. Fragmentation of data flow policies along geopolitical lines, moreover, could cause global trade of goods and services in real terms to fall by 1.8 percent and global GDP to decline by one percent according to estimates from a forthcoming study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the WTO.

WTO Chief Economist Ralph Ossa said: “Some governments have become more skeptical about the benefits of trade and have taken steps aimed at re-shoring production and shifting trade towards friendly nations. The resilience of trade is also being tested by disruptions on two of the world’s main shipping routes: the Panama Canal, which is affected by freshwater shortages, and the diversion of traffic away from the Red Sea. Under these conditions of sustained disruptions, geopolitical tensions, and policy uncertainty, risks to the trade outlook are tilted to the downside.”

Regional trade outlook

If current projections hold, Africa’s exports will grow faster than those of any other region in 2024, up 5.3 percent; this however is from a low base, since the continent’s exports remained depressed after the COVID-19 pandemic.

North America (3.6 percent), the Middle East (3.5 percent) and Asia (3.4 percent) should all see moderate export growth, while South America is expected to grow more slowly, at 2.6 percent. European exports are once again expected to lag behind those of other regions, with growth of just 1.7 percent.

Strong import volume growth of 5.6 percent in Asia and 4.4 percent in Africa should help prop up global demand for traded goods this year. However, all other regions are expected to see below average import growth, including South America (2.7 percent), the Middle East (1.2 percent), North America (one percent), Europe (0.1 percent) and the CIS region (-3.8 percent).

Merchandise exports of least-developed countries (LDCs) are forecasted to grow 2.7 percent in 2024, down from 4.1 percent in 2023, before growth accelerates to 4.2 percent in 2025. Meanwhile, imports by LDCs should grow six percent this year and 6.8 percent next year following a 3.5 percent contraction in 2023.

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Trade in services

World commercial services trade grew nine percent in 2023 despite a decline in freight transport, thanks to recovering international travel and surging digitally delivered services. In 2024, sports events to be held in Europe in the summer, as well as the easing of visa requirements by various countries, are expected to boost tourism and passenger transport.

Global exports of digitally delivered services soared to US$ 4.25 trillion in 2023, up nine percent year-on-year, and accounted for 13.8 percent of world exports of goods and services.

In 2023, the value of these services — traded over borders through computer networks and encompassing everything from professional and management services to streaming of music and videos, online gaming, and remote education — surpassed pre-pandemic levels by over 50 percent.

In Europe and Asia, which hold a global market share of 52.4 percent and 23.8 percent respectively, exports rose by 11 percent and nine percent. Growth accelerated in Africa (13 percent) and in South and Central America and the Caribbean (11 percent), exceeding the global average. The two regions, which formed only 0.9 percent and 1.6 percent of global exports in 2023, are on the path to take advantage of digitally delivered services trade.

The WTO has released a new dataset on trade in services by mode of supply as in the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). It provides valuable insights on how services trade has modified over the years, including the impact of digitalization and of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This dataset as well as the latest estimates on digitally delivered services trade and service trade in general can be visualized and downloaded in the Global Services Trade Data Hub. The newly launched Global Services Trade Data Hub gives access to comprehensive WTO services trade data. It provides visualizations and customizable features catering to the diverse needs of trade negotiators, analysts, researchers, and decision-makers, to derive insights.