World trade fell sharply in the first half of the year, as the COVID-19 pandemic upended the global economy. However, rapid government responses helped temper the contraction, and WTO economists now believe that while trade volumes will register a steep decline in 2020, they are unlikely to reach the worst-case scenario projected in April.
The volume of merchandise trade shrank by 3% year‑on‑year in the first quarter according to WTO statistics. Initial estimates for the second quarter, when the virus and associated lockdown measures affected a large share of the global population, indicate a year‑on‑year drop of around 18.5%.
“The fall in trade we are now seeing is historically large – in fact, it would be the steepest on record. But there is an important silver lining here: it could have been much worse,” said DirectorGeneral Roberto Azevêdo. “Policy decisions have been critical in softening the ongoing blow to output and trade, and they will continue to play an important role in determining the pace of economic recovery. For output and trade to rebound strongly in 2021, fiscal, monetary, and trade policies will all need to keep pulling in the same direction.”
Looking ahead to next year, a slower-than-expected pace of economic recovery would weigh on trade growth. It would see trade growth for 2021 come in at closer to 5%, which would leave it well below the pre-pandemic trajectory. On the other hand, a quick return to its pre-pandemic trajectory would imply trade growth in 2021 of around 20%, in line with the April forecast’s optimistic scenario.