WTO Trade Forecast 2017: Cautiously Optimistic about trade growth recovery

Alicia Nicholls

After decelerating considerably in 2016, world merchandise trade growth is expected to recover to 2.4% in 2017. This is according to the cautiously optimistic trade forecast released today by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

According to the WTO, although global merchandise trade volumes have historically on average grown 1.5 times faster than global GDP, this ratio has slowed to 1:1 since the crisis of 2008. Last year’s merchandise trade growth of 1.3% was the slowest pace of trade growth since the world economic crisis of 2008 and was linked primarily to a weak global economy.

In his press conference remarks, Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, explained that early indicators, such as the record increases in global container shipping throughput, the high levels of global export orders, and the expected recovery in world economic output, point to a recovery in global trade in 2017.

However, the WTO Chief also cautioned that this forecast assumes that governments pursue the right policy mix and that forecasts of an expected recovery in global GDP are accurate. The report noted that trade growth could be negatively affected by governments’ trade, monetary and fiscal policies.

Indeed, the Director-General’s remarks to this point perfectly sum this up as follows:

Overall, I think that while there are some reasons for cautious optimism, trade growth remains fragile and there are considerable risks to the downside. Much of the uncertainty around the outlook is of course political — and not only geopolitical. Part of this is driven by people’s concerns about the impact that trade can have.

Given the high levels of uncertainty which have increased the forecast risk factor, WTO economists have also given a growth range of between 1.8 and 3.6% for 2017.

Observing that trade does cause some dislocation, the WTO Director General cautioned governments against protectionism and highlighted that innovation, automation and new technologies, and not trade, were responsible for eighty percent of the loss of manufacturing jobs.

The WTO’s forecasts for 2018 are much more optimistic, with a growth forecast of between 2.1 and 4.0%

For further information, please see the WTO Director-General’s press conference remarks here and the WTO’s press release here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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