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Is world trade recovering from the crisis?

2012.11.25. 21:01 Világgazdasági Intézet

One of the most shocking consequences of the recent world economic crisis was the considerable contraction of world trade: though the growth rate of world merchandise trade had been slowing down since 2006, the lowest point was reached in 2009 when the volume of world trade decreased by 12.1% compared to the previous year.  This was the first time since the Second World War when the volume of world trade did actually decrease. The main causes are as follows:

  • the contraction of output with special reference to manufacturing production due mainly to the decrease in investment
  • the fall of import demand for investment goods and raw materials;  
  • consumer market shrinkage as a result of reduced purchasing power and increasing unemployment;
  • high volatility of commodity prices;
  • decrease in foreign direct investments;
  • scarcity of trade finance instruments; and
  • different austerity and protectionist trade policy measures.

In 2010 there was a hope for foreign trade recovery as world merchandise trade increased by 13.8% compared to the dramatic decline of the previous year.  The disappointment came in 2011 when the growth rate of world trade slowed down to 5.0% and further moderation is expected in 2012.  According to the WTO (World Trade Organisation) projections, world trade is expected to increase by 3.7% in 2012 if global output increases by 2.1% (1.1% in the developed countries and 5.0% in the developing ones). The exports of the developed countries would increase by 2% only, while that of the developing countries would see an increase of 5.6%. The imports of the developed countries would increase by 1.9% according to the WTO, while that of the developing regions would go up by 6.2%.

Consequently, there is little talk about recovery from the crisis.  All the more so as the majority of the developed countries (especially the USA, the EU countries and Japan) are either still in crisis or their economies are growing very slowly, actually stagnate, or are in recession.  The European Union has to fight the debt crisis, the crisis of the eurozone and the euro, and it also has to struggle with high unemployment.  Monetary squeeze and austerity measures hardly increase the effective (import) demand, while the decrease in investments would jeopardize future export expansion.  Additionally both in China and in other emerging markets (e.g. Brazil, India) economic and export growth is slowing down: in the first quarter of 2012 the economic growth rate in China decreased to 8.1%, while in the second quarter it fell further to 7.6% in contrast to the last 30 years’ average figure of above 10%.  If the Chinese growth model is changed from export-orientation towards a domestic demand-led growth, then China is unlikely to stimulate world trade to the same extent as before.  Natural disasters (like the 2011 earthquake in Japan, floods in Thailand or droughts in different parts of the world in 2012) and political tensions (the Arab spring, the Arab-Israeli conflict etc.) might increase uncertainties (for example, via the high volatility of commodity prices) and might scale down future projections.

As far as the prospects for 2013 are concerned, in June 2012 the WTO projected a 5.6% world trade expansion, assuming a 2.7% global output growth.  Even in that case world trade would be below the pre-crisis level.  The WTO projection is in conformity with the baseline scenario of a UN publication, the World Economic Situation and Prospects 2012, according to which world trade would increase by 5.5%, assuming a 3.2% global GDP growth.  If the global output is higher (around 4%) or lower (0.5%), world trade would expand accordingly to a higher or a lower extent.  In the case of a 5.6% world trade growth in 2013, the exports of the developed countries would increase by 4.1% and that of the developing countries would go up by 7.2%.  The same figures for the imports would be 3.9% and 7.8% respectively. Consequently, world trade growth remains driven by developing regions.

The above projections are quite uncertain since we do not know how successful the management of the debt crisis and the euro crisis will be; how to generate financial resources for launching economic growth; how the commodity prices will change and how it will affect the commodity exporter and commodity importer countries; what kind of natural disasters will occur and what sort of geopolitical conflicts will emerge.  The optimistic scenario can only be achieved if the US economic growth starts and increases the export opportunities of the emerging and the developing countries, thus stimulating world demand.  One should not forget that the world economy is still struggling with large financial imbalances (with the USA and the EU countries excluding Germany on one side, and China, Germany, Japan and the oil-exporter countries on the other).  The good news is that under the present level of globalisation most of the countries are interested in preventing the proliferation of overt protectionism and strengthening multilateralism via revitalising the WTO negotiations.

For the Hungarian economy neither the internal nor the external outlook is favourable.  A small, capital-deficient and traditionally export-oriented economy has no choice but to fully adapt to the changing circumstances.  In the last two decades the Hungarian economy was driven by exports, particularly by manufacturing exports based on the active participation of multinational corporations and foreign direct investments.  Recently 70% of Hungarian exports are produced by foreign capital.  If we wish to follow this model successfully, our ability to attract capital should be strengthened by creating competitive, reliable, predictable and “friendly” political, economic, financial and legal environments.  Furthermore, the Hungarian labour force should be levelled up and infrastructure should be developed, not to speak of such “soft” conditions as curbing corruption, making public procurement transparent and respecting the rule of law.

Apart from the manufacturing industry, Hungary has good opportunities in the fields of agriculture and food industry, not to mention the service sector (tourism, IT). The main concern is how to find expanding markets for the Hungarian products in a barely growing or effectively stagnating world economy.  The most important markets of the Hungarian exports, namely the EU and the eurozone, are in recession.  In the Central and Eastern European regions market expansion is limited, while competition is getting stronger.  However, there are prospective markets in more distant countries (like China, emerging economies, Arab countries, Russia, CIS), though these economies  have also been hit by the crisis.  Consequently, they are not able to provide an unlimited market, especially not for the less competitive Hungarian products and suppliers.

Judit Kiss

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