- Global trade growth is showing signs of serious stress, especially impacting open, trade-dependent economies.
- The trade slump is attributed to a post-COVID hangover, the shift in expenditure from goods to services, and China’s stimulus-free recovery.
- The outlook for global demand is deteriorating, with expected slower economic growth that could hamper trade further.
There’s a rumble echoing around the world’s financial circles. It’s a rumble of worry as the drumbeat of a potential global recession begins to grow louder. There are telltale signs, like shockwaves in the sea before a tsunami, hinting that the global economy is treading turbulent waters.
Trade stress and the emerging economies
As trade growth shows no sign of returning to its former health, it’s primarily the developing, trade-dependent economies that find themselves in the economic firing line. This downturn can be linked to three primary causes.
First, we’re witnessing the aftermath of a trade boom that occurred during the pandemic. When COVID-19 struck, different economies responded in diverse ways.
Countries like the U.S. used fiscal measures to protect the purchasing power of citizens, while China focused on resuscitating production. This created a short-lived acceleration in trade growth reminiscent of the post-2008 recovery.
Second, we’re seeing a transition from goods to services, especially in advanced economies. The market for tangible goods, such as TVs and computers, is finite, and services – less commonly traded – are becoming the favored expenditure.
Last, the character of China’s economic recovery is dampening trade growth. With its current recovery largely stimulus-free, China’s spending has shifted towards services, reducing the need for imports.
The pervasive sense of economic insecurity has also encouraged thriftiness among Chinese households, a trend unlikely to change without significant financial stimulation from the government.
Deteriorating global demand and waning globalization
A key factor adding to the gloom is the declining global demand. This year, global economic growth hovers around a tepid 2.3%, with predictions for next year even grimmer.
Central banks, with eyes trained on reining in inflation, are expected to instigate slowdowns, thereby creating a hostile environment for trade growth.
The present global demand environment is worth noting for its harshness. The last instance when the world experienced two years of sub-2.5% growth in succession was during the financial crisis aftermath.
The rise of “peak globalization” doesn’t help either. It has been applying a downward force on global trade growth for over a decade. In the early 1980s, world exports constituted 15% of global GDP. Fast forward to 2008, and that ratio soared to 25% before steadily falling to 20% in 2020.
In the decade leading up to 2020, for the first time since World War II, global trade growth has lagged behind global GDP growth. When global integration falls behind income growth, those nations reliant on integration – primarily emerging economies – suffer disproportionately.
The World Trade Organization anticipates global trade growth will trail GDP growth in 2023. Increased protectionism, geopolitical tension, and localizing supply chains could make this a permanent state of affairs.
For developing nations not conveniently located next to massive markets, this significantly reduces their opportunities to build export-driven industries.
Globalization once held the promise of economic upliftment for emerging economies by attracting long-term capital to bolster exports and raise income levels. Now, this dream seems bleak, an apparition fading into the fog of uncertainty.
These are disconcerting signs, enough to make one wonder: Is a global recession barreling toward us, just over the horizon? Only time will provide a definitive answer, but for now, the storm clouds are gathering.
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