Facing economic headwinds: Global trade in 2022
By Polina Knutsson (Polina.KNUTSSON@oecd.org), Antonella Liberatore (Antonella.LIBERATORE@oecd.org) and Julia Schmidt (Julia.SCHMIDT@oecd.org), Statistics and Data Directorate (OECD)
Global trade expanded in 2022 despite the challenging economic environment. Based on available information, OECD estimates suggest both merchandise and services trade increased by around 12% compared to 2021, as measured in current US dollars (Figure 1).
The annual growth in merchandise trade is the result of rapid expansion in the first half of the year. The pace of growth decelerated markedly in the second half of the year, resulting in lower annual growth rates than in 2021, when trade recovered strongly after the pandemic. In North America, the slowdown in 2022 merchandise export growth was largely linked to receding energy prices. Rising cost of living and weakening global demand weighed on export growth in Europe and East Asia. Many leading commodity exporters recorded strong growth, largely driven by elevated prices.
Similarly, growth in services trade started strong into 2022, reaching record levels in the first half of the year, while the second half saw a marked slowdown. Cooling global demand and volatile freight costs dampened export growth in the European Union, with a surge in COVID-19 outbreaks in China putting additional pressure on services trade in East Asia. By contrast, travel activity saw a comeback in 2022 across most economies and contributed to robust services trade growth in North America.
Figure 1: Global trade expanded in 2022, despite a challenging year
Note: All trade values are quarterly seasonally adjusted. The global aggregate for merchandise trade is estimated based on 46 economies, accounting for nearly 80% of world merchandise trade in 2021. The global aggregate for services trade is estimated based on 27 economies, accounting for nearly 60% of world services trade in 2021. Source: OECD (2023) Monthly International Merchandise Trade (IMTS) – Headline Series (Database), OECD (2023) Balance of Payments (BOP6)
Commodity prices drove trends in merchandise trade following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The price of many commodities surged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Figure 2), contributing substantially to the increase in merchandise trade values in 2022. Rising oil prices boosted merchandise exports growth in North America (total exports up 17.7% in the United States, 18.5% in Canada, 16.9% in Mexico), although growth weakened in the second half of the year as prices eased. Soaring gas prices fuelled import values in several economies, including the United Kingdom (total imports up 19.2%) and Germany (total imports up 10.6%).
Prices for agricultural products, already elevated by unfavourable weather conditions in 2021, rose further after the start of the war as both Russia and Ukraine are leading exporters of primary commodities. Rising prices for wheat helped to drive merchandise exports of Argentina and Brazil (up 13.5% and 19.9% in 2022, respectively); volatile supplies of palm oils contributed to the growth of Indonesian exports (up 26.4%); soaring demand for fertilisers drove Canadian shipments of potash to record levels.
Figure 2: Commodity prices started to ease, but remained high throughout 2022
Source: IMF Primary Commodity Price System.
Trade in manufacturing goods lost some steam
As the post-pandemic supply chain bottlenecks began to ease, trade in manufacturing products continued to expand in 2022. Yet, many economies recorded lower export growth rates than last year, as rising costs of living weighed on global demand.
International trade in motor vehicles continued to expand, but export growth slowed for many leading traders (Figure 3). Weak sales of vehicles and parts contributed to a decline in Japanese annual merchandise exports (down 1.1%) and held back growth in German exports (up 1.9%). Albeit at a slower pace than in 2021, exports of motor vehicles continued to soar in China, pushed by strong sales of electric cars.
Figure 3: Trade in vehicles and parts eased in 2022
Note: Figures refer to HS87 (vehicles and parts). Source: ITC Trade Map and China Customs.
Cooling global demand, coupled with shifting consumption patterns from goods to services, also affected trade in electrical machinery and equipment, notably in East Asia (Figure 4). China, the largest trader of electronics, recorded a decline in both exports and imports of electronic products, which contributed to the marked slowdown in the country’s total merchandise exports and imports (up 7.2% and 1.8% in 2022, compared to 31.7% and 30.8% in 2021). Weak demand from China and plunging semiconductor prices put strain on Korean exports, which grew by 6.1% in 2022 (compared to 25.5% in 2021).
Figure 4: Trade in electrical machinery and equipment also slowed down
Note: Figures refer to HS85 (Electrical machinery and equipment and parts). Source: ITC Trade Map and China Customs.
Trends in transport services reflected volatile freight costs and slowing merchandise trade
After values of transport services skyrocketed in 2021, leading transport exporters such as the United States, Germany, Korea and China continued to experience strong growth in 2022. Yet, distinct transport components were affected differently.
In Europe and Asia, transport services exports increased markedly in the first half of 2022 and contracted towards the end of the year, as shipping costs returned to pre-pandemic levels and merchandise trade cooled (Figure 5). Partially owing to the receding freight costs, growth in total services exports for Germany and France slowed to 3.3% and 8.5%, respectively, following the two-digit expansion recorded in 2021. At the same time, an increase in passenger transport, linked to fewer restrictions on international travel (as reported by the Oxford COVID-19 Stringency Index), helped offset the slowdown in the freight component. In Japan and Korea soaring passenger transport pushed the annual growth of transport exports.
Figure 5: Volatile freight costs weighed on transport services
Source: OECD calculations based on national sources. Baltic Dry Index sourced from Investing.com
Travel recovered in 2022 as most governments lifted mobility restrictions
Travel, hit hardest by the COVID-19 related restrictions and still well below pre-pandemic levels in 2021, broadly recovered in 2022. People regained confidence in travelling abroad after two years of limited movement in most regions apart from Asia (Figure 6). Travel exports soared across Europe, particularly for Türkiye, Germany and France. In the United States, both exports and imports of travel nearly doubled compared to 2021, pushing total services exports growth to 16.4%. Similarly, Australia recorded a 15.2% increase in service exports as travel jumped after the government lifted COVID-19 restrictions in February 2022. Brazil, too, saw a bounce back in travel activity driving growth in services exports (up 25.3%). In East Asia, travel recovered more reluctantly. Japanese travel exports started to increase again once business visas were issued from March 2022 onwards. Conversely, strict travel restrictions continued to depress growth of travel in China.
Figure 6: 2022 saw a comeback in travel
Source: OECD calculations based on national sources.
Business and computer services continued to grow in 2022, despite a setback in East Asia
Trade in digitally deliverable services such as computer, telecommunications and other business services continued to perform relatively well in 2022. In the United States, exports and imports of computer and business services expanded markedly, while exports in those categories grew moderately in Germany and contracted in France. Lower demand from China, caused by a surge in COVID-19 infections as well as strong 2021 values, impacted the recorded growth rates in East Asia. Chinese exports of business services flattened, and imports contracted sharply, contributing to slower growth in both exports and imports of total services (up 8.8% and 5.4%, respectively, compared to 47.9% and 14.9% for 2021). Japanese service exports declined by 1.8% in 2022, linked to lower sales of business services.