WTO eyes global trade rebound but warns of risks

An aerial photograph taken on February 13, 2023 shows shipping containers at the London Gateway, a port within the wider Port of London, in Corringham, Essex. Photo: AFP

An aerial photograph taken on February 13, 2023 shows shipping containers at the London Gateway, a port within the wider Port of London, in Corringham, Essex. Photo: AFP

Published Apr 11, 2024


THE World Trade Organization (WTO) said yesterday that global trade should rebound this year from an unexpected slump in 2023, but warned that regional conflicts, geopolitical tensions and economic policy uncertainty risked darkening the picture.

In its annual trade forecast, the WTO disclosed that world trade volumes unexpectedly declined by 1.2% in 2023.

That downgrade was “mainly due to the worse-than-expected performance of Europe”, said WTO chief economist Ralph Ossa, with lingering high energy prices and inflation driving down demand for manufactured goods.

The eurozone economy stagnated in the final quarter of last year, with Germany's economy contracting by 0.3%.

But a recovery in the global trade of goods is already under way, thanks in part to inflation slowing.

The WTO forecast that the global economy will continue to grow modestly over the next two years, by 2.6% this year and 2.7% in 2025.

It expects merchandise trade volumes to increase by 2.6% in 2024, and to expand by 3.3% next year.

The 2024 forecast was lower than the 3.3% hike the WTO predicted for the year last October.

“We are making progress towards global trade recovery,” WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement, stressing though that it was “imperative that we mitigate risks like geopolitical strife and trade fragmentation”.

Olympics effect

The organisation said trade developments on the services side were far more upbeat last year, growing by 9%.

The organisation does not provide specific forecasts for the development in services, but said it expected further growth this year, in particular linked to swelling tourism and passenger transport around the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris and the European football championships.

And the WTO said the inflationary pressures that weighed on trade last year were expected to abate in 2024.

This, it said, would allow real incomes to grow again, especially in advanced economies, and thereby provide a boost to the consumption of manufactured goods.

“A recovery of demand for tradeable goods in 2024 is already evident,” WTO said.

But it cautioned that “geopolitical tensions and policy uncertainty could limit the extent of the trade rebound”.

The report pointed, for instance, to the Red Sea crisis and Suez Canal disruptions linked to the war raging in Gaza, which it said had been relatively limited thus far.

But “some sectors, such as automotive products, fertilisers and retail, have already been affected by delays and freight costs hikes”, it pointed out.

“We are still in a period where trade is relatively resilient,” Ossa said, adding that for now “we definitely don’t see any de-globalisation”.


But the WTO has warned that there seems to be a growing “fragmentation” of global trade.

Ossa pointed, for instance, to bilateral trade between the US and China, which reached a record level in 2022.

Last year, trade between the two global giants, meanwhile, grew 30% less than their trade with other countries, he said.

Signs of such fragmentation are also visible in the trade in services.

The US last year increased its imports of services linked to information and communication technologies from Canada, but cut imports of the same services from Asia, and especially from India.

WTO has also warned of worrying signs of growing protectionist behaviour by some countries, although it refuses to name them.

“I think we are clearly in an important point in the history of globalisation,” Ossa said.

“I think a lot of governments are evaluating or re-evaluating perhaps their trade policy choices and, of course, this is going to have consequences on how international trade is going to develop.”

The WTO chief economist pointed to the dozens of elections being held around the world this year, including some very high-stakes ones such as in the US, that could dramatically impact trade policies.

“The very fact that you don’t know how some of these policy choices are made (creates a) trade policy uncertainty (that) by itself already is a drag on international trade,” he warned.