Cross-border commerce is in its poorest health since the Great Financial Crisis 10 years ago, or even in decades, depending on which measure you look at, and the incoming data point to further deterioration next year.
In the last week alone a batch of figures from economic and exporting powerhouses in Asia, including China, showed that global trade is losing steam. And it couldn’t be coming at a worse time for investors.
Wall Street and stock markets around the world are falling. Major names in tech (Apple) and banking (Goldman Sachs), sectors that are pivotal to the global flow of goods and services and which had led the market boom of recent years, are among the biggest losers on the way down.
Auto sector stocks, among the most exposed to cross-border and cross-continent commerce and supply chains, have been particularly volatile and vulnerable this year to the (mostly negative) newsflow on tariffs and trade.
In an updated paper published in “Our World In Data” in October, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Diana Beltikian and Max Roser noted that the value of exports as a share of global GDP fell three years in a row from 2011-14. The level of contraction is small, by roughly 1 percentage point to 24.12 pct, but the direction of travel is cause for concern.
“There is a correlation between economic growth and trade: countries with higher rates of GDP growth also tend to have higher rates of growth in trade as a share of output,” they concluded. “The empirical literature suggests that increased trade causes higher economic growth.”
World Bank figures show that trade as a share of global GDP has fallen for four years in a row. There have been steeper declines, such as 2008-2009, but this is currently the longest downturn since at least 1960.
This week, South Korea’s government cut its 2019 growth outlook to 2.6-2.7 pct, which will be the lowest since 2012, and data showed Indonesian exports for November falling off a cliff. China’s exports in November rose 5.4 pct year on year, roughly half of economists’ consensus forecast and a third of the previous month’s 15.6 pct.
There’s no shortage of flashpoints in the global trade war, the most significant being the U.S.-China front. Washington and Beijing have agreed a 90-day truce, but if a deal can’t be reached, then existing 10 percent tariffs on U.S. imports from China would go up to 25 percent.
Does history offer any clues as to what we can expect next year?
Analysts at Oxford Economics note that, the 1930s aside, trade skirmishes usually have a limited impact on global growth and asset markets. But when it opens up, the downside can be steep.
The four most recent major global trade disputes they cite – one in agriculture (1982-86), two around steel (1983-84 and 2002-03) and one on tyres (2009-12) – coincided with falling equity markets around only one of them. But it was a savage 19 pct correction, in 2002-03.
In the other three, stocks rose. The behaviour of GDP growth was a little more mixed, although overall, still positive. But trade growth was more severely affected, which undoubtedly constrained the broader economic expansion.
“High tariffs created large business interests in favour of protectionism, meaning tariff momentum can build,” Oxford Economics warns.
With Trump calling himself “Tariff Man” only last week, investors should buckle up for a bumpy ride next year.
(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)