Global Trade Flows Are Expanding, But Is There a Reason for Optimism?

Last Friday, the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, as part of its World Trade Monitor, reported that global trade flows – the volume of export and imports of goods – was 4.5% higher in 2017 than in 2016. This is an important finding because it marks the biggest rate of year-in-year expansion since the world began recovering from the global financial crisis, exceeding expectations for the year. According to the CPB World Trade Monitor, global trade flows grew 24% between January 2010 and December 2017.

Experts, however, are cautiously optimistic about the news and what it could mean for 2018. Last year, significant uncertainties about critical aspects of the global economy made it difficult to predict the track of trade growth. The WTO cited unpredictability with respect to government action on monetary, fiscal, and trade policy, and whether trade would be restricted in favor of attempts to address domestic wage stagnation and unemployment. Moreover, the process of establishing global value chains – spreading production processes around the world – is stabilizing. That process had been a key driver in boosting global trade flows out of economic crisis, but is naturally beginning to slow.

In the United States, political and economic analysts struggled early in 2017 to estimate the impact of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations and to renegotiate NAFTA. On one hand, those trade policy shocks” have been countered by trade-promoting policies in other regions, including the recently finalized Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership among the 11 remaining parties to the original TPP. Trade among the NAFTA countries continues to dominate regional trade arrangements in the world, second only to intra-European Union trade flows. And President Trump has started this year with strong messaging on the importance of international trade – downplaying the fear of trade wars and signaling an interest in rejoining the TPP. On the other hand, the world is watching as President Trump considers whether to impose what may be broad trade restrictions on imports of steel and aluminum products under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

Notwithstanding these developments, the better-than-expected growth in 2017 have given economists a reason to expect a high rate of growth to continue at least through 2018, spurred by strong investment spending, growing demand in the EU, and new trade agreements. The WTO had forecasted global trade expansion for 2017 of only 2.4%, with the actual results being far better. For 2018, the WTO predicts trade growth to pick up slightly.” Although much depends on the impact of political decision-making, the trend suggests that trade flows will continue to be strong this year.