The Good News and the Bad News on Trade
Business confidence around the world is up. Business insolvencies, generally speaking, are down. Growth rates for global economies are healthy as are current and projected rates for international trade.
So what’s the bad news?
“Business confidence around the world may be up, but not as it was last year,” said Julien Marcilly, the chief economist at Coface, the global trade credit insurer at an annual conference in New York last week.
“The message is that we’re driving a pretty good car and it drives quite fast but the road is bumpy,” Marcilly said. “They still have plenty of risks to deal with.” The post-recession peak in business growth is likely passed in many countries, he added.
The fact that business insolvencies are down is great news for global traders. That means that the chances they will be stuck with unpaid invoices are that much lower. Insolvencies in Western Europe are down seven percent, in North America, five percent, and in Asia-Pacific, one percent. There were some exceptions to this trend, such as in the United Kingdom and Sweden, but in the 20 countries studied by Coface, 14 of them had lower insolvency rates. In general, insolvencies are now below rates that prevailed before the financial crisis of 2008-09, and those were an all-time low back then.
Trade protectionism is a wild card in this picture. Businesses perceive that protectionism is on its way up—especially given the rhetoric of the Trump administration in the United States—but Coface’s data indicate that the number of protectionist measures actually implemented are on their way down, and have been since 2014. Even though protectionist measures in the United States may be on the rise, they “are more than offset by fewer protectionist measures coming in from the rest of the world,” Marcilly said.
“Many businesses express greater confidence in their domestic situations but are worried about what is going on abroad,” he added. “When you aggregate that information, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Another paradox that emerges from US protectionism is that it may actually promote freer trade elsewhere in the world. Mexico has updated its trade agreements with Brazil and Argentina to protect the levels of corn imports it requires, supplies it had previously received from the US. Mexico and the European Union recently reached an agreement in principle for an FTA and the EU and Japan concluded the world’s largest FTA earlier this year, all because they are worried about the future of US trade.
Also, Marcilly noted, US protectionist measures won’t necessarily work to curb imports, especially from China. Emerging economies like China developed robust export sectors thanks to their lower labor costs. China’s per capita GDP has grown from nine percent of the US in 2000 to only 25 percent today. “A 25-percent tariff won’t deter China from continuing to export to the US,” Marcilly said.
World trade growth is down since its heyday between 2001 and 2007 when it grew at an average annual clip of seven percent. Those rates dropped off precipitously during and after the Great Recession and as recently as 2016 amounted to only 1.5 percent. But in 2017, growth reached 4.4 percent and this year Coface projects the number will come in at 3.7 percent.
It’s not as good as last year, but it’s still represents healthy growth. Globalization may have slowed, but it’s not going away, despite the policies of the Trump administration.