Global trade improving gradually; WTO Goods Trade Barometer

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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The latest readings at the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Goods Trade Barometer suggest that world merchandise trade has likely registered a historic fall in the second quarter of 2020.

Additional indicators point to partial upticks in world trade and output in the third quarter, but the strength of any such recovery remains highly uncertain: an L-shaped, rather than V-shaped, the trajectory cannot be ruled out.

The latest barometer which is considered as a real-time gauge of trends in global trade had a reading of 84.5 which is 15.5 points below the baseline value of 100 for the index and 18.6 points down from the same period last year.

This reading which is the lowest on record in data going back to 2007, and on par with the worst period of the 2008-09 financial crisis is broadly consistent with WTO statistics issued in June, which estimated an 18.5 percent decline in merchandise trade in the second quarter of 2020 as compared to the same period last year.

The exact extent of the fall in trade will only be confirmed later this year when official trade volume data for the period from April to June becomes available.

All of the barometer’s component indices remain well below trend, with many registering historic lows, although some have begun to stabilize. Indices for automotive products (71.8) and air freight (76.5) are by far the worst on record since 2007.

Container shipping (86.9) also remains deeply depressed. Export orders (88.4) show signs of recovery as this index has turned upward. Meanwhile, indices for electronic components (92.8) and agricultural raw materials (92.5) have held up relatively well, showing only modest declines.

The WTO’s June statistics implied a 14 percent drop in global merchandise trade volume between the first and second quarters of this year. This estimate, together with the new Goods Trade Barometer reading, suggest that world trade in 2020 is evolving in line with the less pessimistic of the two scenarios outlined in the WTO’s April forecast, which projected that the volume of merchandise trade this year would contract by 13 percent compared to 2019.

However, as WTO economists warned in June, the heavy economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the projections for a strong, V-shaped trade rebound in 2021 may prove overly optimistic. As uncertainty remains elevated, in terms of economic and trade policy as well as how the medical crisis will evolve, an L-shaped recovery is a real prospect. This would leave global trade well below its pre-pandemic trajectory.

The Goods Trade Barometer is designed to gauge momentum and identify turning points in world trade growth. Readings of 100 indicate growth in line with medium-term trends; readings greater than 100 suggest above-trend growth, while those below 100 indicate below-trend growth.

In normal times, the Goods Trade Barometer anticipates changes in the trajectory of world trade by a few months. However, the sudden, unexpected nature of the COVI-19 crisis may have profoundly altered economic behavior and patterns, reducing the predictive value of the standard set of indicators.

Other statistics may capture shifts in consumer and business sentiment. Modest increases have already been recorded for several of these indicators related to trade, such as those tracking commercial flights and port calls by container ships.