Let’s dig into the data a little. The post-crisis slump in international trade was initially concentrated among advanced economies, particularly in Europe. More recently, the trade slowdown has been centred in the emerging markets of Asia, including China. This has led many investors to link weak trade to the slowdown in China, and therefore in the global economy.
Recent work at the Bank of Canada and elsewhere shows that about half of the slowdown in trade growth among advanced economies in the post-crisis period can be explained by weak economic activity, especially sluggish business investment. Throughout this period, companies have been dealing with high levels of uncertainty about the prospects for the global economy, in some cases because of aggressive deleveraging. This has held back investment and, in turn, contributed to soft trade. Investment spending involves capital equipment, with inputs from many countries, and therefore is very trade-intensive. So when economic growth slows because of weak investment, trade slows disproportionately.
While advanced economies were dealing with the worst of the crisis, China’s economy continued to expand. This supported demand for commodities, thereby keeping a portion of international trade flows moving. Higher prices for commodities also prompted commodity producers to make big investments and ramp up supply.
Ultimately, though, growth in China began to moderate to a more sustainable pace. More importantly, the Chinese economy has begun to shift away from investment-driven growth toward consumption, especially of services. Quite simply, this has meant less international trade. Even so, China’s imports of many commodities continue to grow at double-digit rates.
So, we have reason to expect global trade to grow more slowly than in the past: first, because global investment spending is in a lull, and second, because China’s economy is restructuring toward more domestic consumption and less trade. We can certainly expect global trade to pick up when the world economy gets back onto a self-sustaining growth track, with stronger business investment. Still, as I just noted, cyclical factors can explain only about half of the trade slowdown, so we have more explaining to do.
Indeed, I think we need to step back and consider the possibility that the rapid pace of trade growth that prevailed for the two decades before the crisis was the exception, and not the rule. Why would I say that? What we saw during the 1990s and 2000s was the result of the natural incentive to use trade to increase specialization, in reaction to reduced trade barriers and major advances in communication and transportation technology.
During those years, countries formed regional trading blocs through arrangements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Union. Previously closed economies, such as China, became more engaged by joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).
This combination of elements gave the natural incentive to trade a great deal more room to grow. It paved the way for companies to build global supply chains—the “integrative trade model.” A factory that made a product no longer needed to be next door to the product’s designers. Firms could now exploit their comparative advantage by specializing, not just in one particular good or service, but in one part of a good or service. The result was an explosion of specialization as markets became global and companies became more efficient.
As the Peterson Institute for International Economics put it in its recent persuasive report Reality Check for the Global Economy, “trade boomed during the 1990s and early 2000s in part because intermediate goods began globetrotting.”
However, any trend that goes on for 15 or 20 years becomes ingrained in our expectations. We should have realized all along that this process of integration simply could not continue at the same pace forever. At some point, trade would reach a new balance point in the global economy where firms had built optimal supply chains that crossed international borders, slowing the integration process, at least for the present.
Yes, there are other structural reasons you can point to for the deceleration in global trade. A troubling number of protectionist measures have been put in place since the crisis, for example. But I believe that the most important structural factor behind the slowdown in trade growth is that the big opportunities for increased international integration have been largely exploited. China can join the WTO only once. That’s not to say that further integration waves won’t happen—I certainly hope they will. But if global trade has reached a new balance point, we should not fret that global export growth hasn’t recovered to pre-crisis levels.
Change in gross domestic product (GDP) is the main indicator of economic growth. GDP is estimated to have increased by 0.4% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2016 compared with growth of 0.6% in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2015.
Output increased in services by 0.6% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2016. The other 3 main industrial groupings within the economy decreased, with production falling by 0.4%, construction output by 0.9% and agriculture by 0.1%.
GDP was 2.1% higher in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2016 compared with the same quarter a year ago.