IMF raises global GDP growth forecast but protectionist policies a threat

Alicia Nicholls

The sharp downtown in global trade in recent years is both a symptom of and a contributor to low growth“. – Making Trade an Engine of Growth for All (IMF, WTO, World Bank Report of April 2017)

Protectionism leading to trade warfare is a ‘salient threat’ to global economic growth, warned the International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists, not for the first time, in their recently released World Economic Outlook for April 2017.

The good news is that the Fund’s April outlook was much more upbeat than its January 2017 outlook. According to the Fund, the global economy is projected to expand by 3.5 percent in 2017, a modest increase from its 3.4 percent projection in its January 2017 outlook but greater than the 3.1 percent growth in 2016. The Fund has maintained its outlook for 2018 at 3.6 percent.

The not so good news, as already noted, is that the tenuous economic recovery remains vulnerable to several downside risks, including protectionism. Bear in mind as well that the global economy expanded on average 4.2 percent between 1999-2008, so the projected rate of growth is still below the pre-crisis rates of growth.

The Fund’s most recent WEO report comes on the heels of the release by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) of its trade growth forecast which projected some recovery in global trade growth to 2.4 percent in 2017. Most readers would remember that 2016 saw the slowest rate of global trade growth since the global economic and financial crisis which coincided with the slowest rate of global economic growth in 2016 since 2009.

As noted by the WTO in its press release, “the volume of world merchandise trade has tended to grow about 1.5 times faster than world output, although in the 1990s it grew more than twice as fast.” However, dampened trade volumes have been linked to a subdued global economy and global trade grew less than global economic growth in 2016. Although, the WTO’s projected rate of growth for 2017 signals a cautious recovery, the rate of merchandise trade growth is still much lower than pre-crisis merchandise trade growth and the forecast risk is higher due to both economic and policy uncertainty.

The IMF’s most recent WEO also follows a joint report released by that institution, the WTO and the World Bank entitled “Making Trade an Engine of Growth for All: The Case for Trade and for Policies to Facilitate Adjustment” in which it was stated, inter alia, that the role of trade in the global economy is ‘at a critical juncture’, and arguing that further trade integration was important for stimulating global growth.

At the same time, the IMF warned that protectionism could lead to trade warfare, citing several factors in mainly advanced economies which have seen greater political support for nationalist and protectionist policies. There is good reason for this concern, stemming from protectionist turns and mercantilist rhetoric emanating from political quarters in advanced economies, namely the US and Europe. Moreover, the communique from the March 2017 G-20 Finance Ministers’ Meeting in Germany  saw, for the first time, the exclusion of the pledge to “resist protectionism”. On the multilateral front, although the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement has come into effect, there has been little progress otherwise on multilateral trade negotiations.

Trade is an important driver of global growth, and helped to propel global growth in the latter half of the 20th century. Trade has also played an important role in boosting competition, productivity and improving living standards and productivity. However, there has been dislocation as a result of free trade. In the case of developing countries, there has been the negative impact of competition from cheaper subsidised (particularly agricultural) imports from advanced countries on domestic industries which have higher production costs due to lack of economies of scale and lower technology use. An Oxfam report noted the  negative impact on Mexico’s corn industry following the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

While the cheaper imports benefit consumers through lower prices, they, however, can negatively impact domestic industries and jobs, and with implications for countries’ balance of trade, and in the case of the agricultural sector, food security. This is an issue which has been noted by developing countries and development economists for years but only seemed to gain mainstream discussion once the effects became more palpable in advanced economies, such as the US and Europe.

However, this is not to suggest that trade is undesirable or that the negatives outweigh the positives. Trade, as the IMF has rightly noted, is an important driver of the global economy. It does, suggest, however, that there needs to be greater consideration of the “social impact” of trade policies and of the need to make trade policies much more inclusive by ensuring that the most vulnerable to the negative fall-outs of trade, such as women and the poor, are protected through supporting policies and mechanisms. As such, domestic policies to assist with, and mitigate, these trade-related adjustments are important, a point made in the joint report by the IMF, WTO and World Bank.

Besides protectionism, the IMF also noted faster than expected interest rate hikes in the US, aggressive financial deregulation, financial tightening in emerging market economies, geopolitical tensions, inter alia, as among the inter-connected downside risks to global growth. Furthermore, the IMF emphasised the importance that countries’ policy choices will have on the global economic outlook and on reducing risks to this outlook.

To read the full IMF WEO April 2017 report, please visit 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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