TRADE-WATCHERS often look to the oceans to gauge activity. Bustling docks and harbours mean importers and exporters are busy, and trade figures are likely to be strong. Empty quays are ominous. At the end of 2011 data from big ports started to turn choppy, fuelling fears of a slowdown that has come to pass. The OECD reports that exports fell by over 4% in the second quarter of 2012 in Britain and India; Russia and South Africa lost more than 8%. That is particularly bad news for places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which are important trade hubs (see chart 1); open euro-zone countries like Ireland and Belgium are also highly exposed.
The obvious cause of falling trade is the global economic slowdown. Since exports are sales to foreigners, they tend to weaken when buying power is low. That means trade often tracks global GDP quite closely. At a more granular level, too, the patterns of trade match the fortunes of economies. Since 2011, imports into the stagnant European Union have fallen by 4.5%. In contrast the oil-rich Middle East has increased imports by 7.4%.
If the global economy were the only factor in determining trade, a pick-up in world output would translate automatically into rising trade. The IMF, for example, thinks that trade will grow by 5.1% in 2013 on the back of a strengthening economy. But the fund’s predictions assume that looser policies in the euro area and emerging markets will be successful. If that turns out to be too optimistic then growth, and trade, could undershoot its forecasts. The latest shipping data hold out little hope for a rapid rebound. A survey reported by Lloyd’s List on September 5th showed that container volumes from Asia to Europe plunged by 13.2% in the year to July.
What’s more, trade does not track business cycles perfectly. Trade has generally grown faster than GDP in recent years, rising from 22% to 33% of world GDP between 1996 and 2008. Its downturn this year has been more pronounced than that of the world economy...