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Even a stopped clock….? | 7th April 2014

Why economists are right to be cautious about the recovery | In a recent after-dinner speech at an Economists’ event I attended, a senior UK economist and a former external member of the Monetary Policy Committee explained why economists are cautious about stating unequivocally that the recovery in the UK and Europe has started. The argument ran something like this: first, economists generally as a profession did not predict the downturn; second, although there are plenty of individuals who will state that they knew it was coming, it was not predicted in our models and therefore we should be wary of declaring recovery – just in case everything collapses again; third, there are plenty of signs that any recovery in 2014 is weak and is unlikely lead to global “escape velocity”, as Christine Lagarde, the Head of the IMF reminded us last week.

As the World Trade Organisation (WTO) looks back into its crystal ball on the 14th April, tells us what happened to merchandise trade in 2013 and revises what it thinks will happen in 2014, it would do well to remember the humility with which all economists should treat any forecast. In a sense, its job is easy. It is revising its forecasts for 2013 and therefore 2014. It is likely to come in at a trade growth figure for 2013 around 1.9% in contrast to its forecast of 2.5% for last year. This will mean that it will also have to revise downwards its forecast for 2014 as it will be starting from a lower base but, because it is using the more optimistic assumptions modelled by the IMF of faster growth in developed countries, it will still be very optimistic on trade growth for the year.

Delta Economics’ own estimate of trade growth in 2013 suggests that trade growth has been lower than the 1.9% that the WT0 was informally predicting back in December at just 1.4% averaging out imports and export growth. Our modelling is based on the monthly IMF Direction of Trade Statistics, the United Nations Comtrade Statistics and 93 national statistics offices. The first two are the same datasets that the WTO itself uses, the third harmonises the data with national data to bring it up to date.

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Figure 1 | Delta Economics Q1 2014 World Trade Forecast overview

Figure 1 Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

Given that the data is similar to that used by the WTO, it is hard to see why it would come in with a value as high as 1.9%, but estimating techniques vary and the figure of 1.5% growth in imports in 2013 without a correction for global disinflation may explain the difference.

However, what matters more is the fact that the Delta Economics forecast for world trade growth in 2014 has been falling over the past six months and will, no doubt, be several percentage points below that of the WTO’s which currently stands at 4.5% for 2014. While, like the WTO/IMF’s forecasts, we saw more buoyant conditions at the end of 2013 but even so, the moving average forecast over the past 6 months suggests that world trade growth in 2014 will be only just above 1% compared to 1.5% that we were forecasting in December.

There are several reasons why Delta Economics is cautious about predicting a rapid expansion in trade growth this year. The first is that, as Figure 1 suggests, while we are more positive about the US, Germany and the UK, we are more negative or neutral about exports from other top trading nations: China, France and Japan. Our forecasts are also more negative for other, key, economies such as Canada, Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This leads us to have a generally more negative outlook for export growth in every region except Europe and for Europe we are forecasting a slightly slower contraction rather than growth.

The second reason why we are less positive about trade is because of the patterns of trade between developed and emerging economies. The main feature of the post-crisis recovery was a more rapid recovery of emerging economies in trade terms compared to developed nations, shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2 | North-North and South-South trade, June 2001-Dec 2016 (USDbn values)

Figure 2 Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

North-North trade has yet to return to its pre-crisis levels and will remain flat for the next three years according to our forecasts, but more importantly, South-South trade, which drove trade recovery after the downturn globally, will grow by just over 5% in 2014 compared to over 18% in nominal values between 2011 and 2012. And since this is predominantly accounted for by commodities, infrastructure and intermediate manufactured goods, it suggests that these economies will not be demanding the products that fuel growth for the foreseeable future. Declining export forecasts for China, India and Mexico, as well as slower forecast growth in Asia, Latin America and MENA illustrates just how the spillover effects of South-South slowdown work through to these countries.

Some of the fall in prices is because of how trade is measured. We, like the IMF and the WTO, use US Dollar nominal values to create our trends but what this does, is illustrate very clearly that if there has been downward pressure on prices this, in and for itself would explain why we are showing slower actual growth. The current price forecasts that Delta Economics models, effectively show how trade volumes will be affected if prices remain the same. On the basis of this, we are forecasting only modest growth in South-South and flat growth in North-North trade volumes.

Why this is important is because of the effect that it has on equity markets in particular. For example, the BSE Sensex is highly correlated with South-South trade (0.92) and this is illustratively presented in Figure 3.

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Figure 3 | South-South trade and the Indian BSE Sensex last price monthly, June 2001-Feb 2014

Figure 3 Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

When equity prices generally fell between 2007 and the end of 2008, the subsequent lock-down in credit affected markets for trade finance with the result that South-South trade fell as well after a time-lag. The upward trend of the market and emerging world trade continues until the end of 2010 when again, a drop in the market created uncertainties, particularly about India’s trade and economic performance and again led to a drop in trade after a four month time lag.

And this matters at a global level as well. Figure 4 replicates the same diagram for the S&P 500 and world trade.

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Figure 4 | S&P last price monthly and value of World trade, USD bn, June 2001-Feb 2014

Figure 4 Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

Since 2001, equity prices and trade have been highly correlated. In 2008 we saw a major drop in equity prices and the simultaneous lock-down of credit. What this did was restrict access to trade finance with the consequential 23% drop in trade that we saw in 2009. They moved together with a high positive correlation up to April 2011 reflecting general confidence in markets, but, since then, the relationship has been an equally strong negative correlation.

What this tells us is that markets have not been reacting to economic fundamentals for the last nearly 3 years but instead are reacting to sentiment and political/geo-political events. This makes them volatile, which, as our modelling demonstrates, increases uncertainty and therefore trade itself. It also suggests that there is a correction due during the course of 2014 if we are to return to the high levels of correlation up to 2011.

There is plenty to worry about in world trade at the moment. It is not like GDP in that it is directly affected by geo-political risk, which often works through trade sanctions and embargoes, and it is directly affected by economic uncertainty because this makes the trade finance environment more difficult and can restrict access to finance for exporters. This in and for itself will negatively impact GDP and economic development through trade.

Given the importance of trade to markets, trade finance and to economies generally, improving the accuracy and timeliness of trade forecasts is vital. Delta Economics is erring on the side of caution in proclaiming a recovery, not because it is insuring itself against the likelihood of a downturn but because the geo-political and deflationary downside risks globally suggest that the trade picture is more negative than is currently being predicted elsewhere. Trade, like financial markets, is internationally inter-dependent – one falls and the other falls too. It is no longer adequate to be like a stopped clock – right twice a day.