Slow Trade Growth is the New Normal

The World Trade Organization forecast on April 2 that merchandise trade will grow a modest 2.6 percent in 2019, with risks to the downside. The outlook for next year is only slightly better, with trade projected to expand 3 percent. These are disappointing numbers: international commerce, the WTO anticipates, will expand no faster than the world economy this year and will be only slightly more robust than global GDP in 2020.

The WTO’s director-general, Robert Azevêdo, blamed the unhappy news on uncertainty caused by protectionist bluster. “Of course there are other elements in play, but rising trade tensions are the major factor,” he told the press. But Mr. Azevêdo may be overstating the case. There is reason to think that slow growth in goods trade is not an aberration caused by protectionist rhetoric, but is the new normal, due to factors that have nothing to do with trade wars.

For most of the past half-century, exports and imports grew far faster than the world economy. Merchandise trade, less than one-third of the world’s GDP in the 1980s, climbed to more than half in 2008 as China developed into the world’s workshop. China’s factories consumed vast quantities of imported fuel, ore, and chemicals; shipped a quarter or more of their output abroad; and then imported waste paper, used electronic equipment, and scrap metal for recycling into yet more manufactured goods.  Each part of this cycle involved long-distance trade, which is why demand for container shipping increased an average of roughly nine percent per year.

Exports and imports of goods plummeted in 2009, and they have grown since then on a much lower trajectory then before. It seems likely that in the years ahead, international trade will grow more slowly than the world economy as a whole, a distinct divergence from the pattern since World War Two.

Several forces are driving this trend. One is a change in consumer behavior. As personal incomes rise, households tend to shift their spending away from physical products toward services and experiences, from education and medical care to adventure vacations.  Call it the Marie Kondo effect, the belief that having things brings us less joy than doing things. This shift in spending patterns is positive for trade in services, but it is unambiguously negative for merchandise trade.

Another cause of slower growth in trade is a reconsideration of global supply chains. Starting in the late 1980s, lower transport and communications costs and better information technology made it practical for manufacturers and retailers to stretch their supply chains around the globe in search of lower production costs. Intermediate goods—things made in one country and shipped to another for further processing—account for a large share of all merchandise trade.  But in recent years supply chains have become more costly and less reliable. Importers have responded to increased risk by keeping more inventory on hand and by building redundancy into their supply chains, measures that make trading more expensive.

A third factor weighing on trade is automation. The great relocation of factory production to China, Mexico, and Eastern Europe since the early 1990s was, in good part, a search for lower labor costs. But production labor matters far less than it used to as robotics and artificial intelligence enable computers to take on more of the work. Additive manufacturing, more widely known as 3-D manufacturing, lets manufacturers make some goods with very few workers on the factory floor, and important experiments are underway to produce some types of apparel and footwear in highly automated factories.  These developments are making it feasible to locate factories near end markets rather than near cheap labor, and they are likely to suppress the growth of international trade.

All this means that cross-border movement of goods will probably be far less buoyant in the years ahead. Services and ideas, not things, account for a growing share of global commerce; since 2012, exports of commercial services have grown twice as fast as exports of goods. Ship lines, ports, and railroads that have invested in expectation of an every-increasing volume of containers may need to adjust their expectations.  Even if protectionist pressures recede, the next stage of globalization will be quite different from the last one.

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