We are truly living through exceptional times. Crude oil prices in the futures market have plunged into negative territory for the first time in history1 while we have witnessed the first quarterly contraction of China’s GDP since 1992 when official records started2. The COVID-19 pandemic has already proven its ability to completely redefine our global economy.
Trade is no exception in this regard: the World Trade Organization forecasts a decline in the world merchandise trade volume of between 13 per cent and 32 per cent in 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a high likelihood of surpassing the historic slump observed during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.3 This is the second major blow in a relatively short period of time to the seemingly secular trend of expanding global trade and increasing economic integration.
We have witnessed a rapid increase in global trade, from around 20 per cent in 1970 to over 50 per cent of world GDP in 2008. The strongest drivers of this trade expansion have been Europe and East Asia. Since 2009, the development of global trade in nominal terms relative to world GDP has become more volatile, with a quick rebound in 2010 and a sizable contraction in 2015 and 20164.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the global economy at a time when world trade and the global division of labour have already been strained due to rising protectionism. Rising tensions over trade, in particular between the United States and China, have seriously hampered global trade recently. In 2019, trade volumes declined for the first time since the global financial crisis, according to the CPB World Trade Monitor. While growth continued to be sluggish at the beginning of the year, partly reflecting the drop in exports and imports due to the lockdown in China, the full effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be reflected in the data. Freight volumes in the Red Sea and Suez Canal, an important shipping route, were around 25 per cent below their usual levels at the beginning of May.5
The world trade system is crucial for distributing inputs to manufacturing production across the globe. Multinational enterprises are an important driver of the fragmentation of production: they account for two-thirds of international trade.6 Around every second trade transaction in manufacturing involves intermediates. Intermediate goods are usually shipped between different production sites for further processing. The expansion of global value chains (GVCs) over the past decades has reshaped the geography of world trade and has allowed some developing countries, particularly in Southeast and East Asia, to engage in the production of more complex manufactured goods by specializing in distinct activities in GVCs.
The highly complex system of GVCs relies on the smooth functioning of global trade, which has been severely affected by COVID-19. In addition to the drop in demand, containment measures are hampering the flow of goods between countries. Over 80 per cent of global trade is transported by sea.7 Shipping data show that the number of inactive container ships in East Asia and the Pacific soared immediately after the first lockdown measures were implemented in China. Exporters in the rest of the world reported a lack of containers during that time.8
While the situation in East Asia has started to normalize with the re-opening of the Chinese economy, shipping congestion in other parts of the world has been on the rise amid lockdowns, most notably in South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as well as in Europe and Central Asia. The fall in global demand contributes to reduced (and slower) shipping activity. Moreover, most countries have introduced safety measures at ports — including quarantines and the prohibition of crew changes — leading to transport disruptions and delays. A recent analysis of satellite data shows that sailings to destinations where the change of crews is restricted dropped significantly more than sailings to destinations with less stringent restrictions, such as screening rules.9 Time delays in international trade and associated supply chain uncertainty have been shown to increase costs and to negatively impact trade.10
In addition, both land transport and air cargo have suffered sharp blows. The reintroduction of border controls in many European countries in mid-March led to severe congestion at the borders. The price for air cargo has risen dramatically as more than half of the world’s air cargo is usually transported in passenger planes which are currently not operating due to travel restrictions.11
The scope of these disruptions in trade is unprecedented. The current downturn of trade can be attributed to a reduction in demand and supply, in particular in sectors most affected by the COVID-19 containment measures, and an increase in transport costs. Previous research on disruptions in global trade reveals that policies that reduce time and uncertainties along GVCs are essential for rapid recovery.
A study by Inoue and Todo (2020) simulates the impact of a lockdown of Tokyo, a major economic hub, on supply chains in Japan.12 The lockdown of a major city quickly proliferates through supply chains and the longer the lockdown is in place, the more firms further downstream or upstream from the plants located in Tokyo are affected. The economic damage increases over-proportionally with each day. The risk every firm in the supply chain faces depends on its particular location within the chain, its competitive or contractual position and its adjustment flexibility, which is intricately linked to its inventory position. A higher degree of diversification, financial capabilities and flexibility across activities allows firms to absorb shocks.
Even when the short-term effects due to disruptions in supply chains are enormous, recovery can take place within a few quarters.13 Production input or supplier substitution are key to slowing down the proliferation of shock and a fast recovery. Furthermore, general business continuity plans to build up resilience and to outline what actions to take in times of disasters are helpful to better cope with disruptions in supplies and logistics problems.14
Pre-emptive measures can help mitigate the impact of supply chain disruptions. In 2003, during the SARS crisis, many Asian companies along GVCs increased production in response, built buffer levels and stocked up inventories. Many firms developed business plans, establishing parallel sites or shifting operations, and invested in IT to enable remote working.15 In addition, arranging alternative transportation methods, transport routes and production arrangements reduce logistics bottlenecks and minimize the risk along value chains. Long delays in GVCs are costly. Missing key components due to late arrival can cause idle time, making many in-time deliveries worth more than the value of the components being transported. This is why parts and components are one of the most time-sensitive goods.16
Similar to previous crises, governments have introduced anti-recession measures and mobilized billions of dollars to mitigate the economic consequences of COVID-19. In previous crises, financial assistance from local banks and trading partners was particularly important, for example in the post-disaster phase after the Great East Japan earthquake in March 2011.17 Similarly, a key to the recovery of trade during the financial crisis was the reduction of financial frictions for trade granted by banks and governments.
In contrast to previous epidemics like SARS or economic shocks like the financial crisis, travel and movement restrictions, social distancing measures and the shutdown of many businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 imply that labour supply, travel, transport and trade are strongly and directly affected in ways unknown before. The crisis has hit many major global economic centres almost simultaneously. Global monitoring, international coordination and cooperation are key in containing both the economic shock and the pandemic. A multilateral approach to policy making and intergovernmental cooperation will lead to greater policy effectiveness. Historical experience demonstrates that after the Second World War, international cooperation was crucial for rapid economic recovery, as was knowledge and technology exchange.18
Supply chain disruptions are currently hampering economic activity. International trade can nonetheless contribute to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous disruptions in transport have shown how important fast recovery is to keeping trade routes open since supply chains are sensitive to logistics bottlenecks. Precautionary measures hindering trade should only be temporary and not lead to more protectionism in the long run. Many of the current anti-export measures might lead to serious trade distortions and uncertainties, hitting developing countries particularly hard. Not additional trade protectionism, but keeping transport routes and ports open, ensuring the right of transit, and trade facilitation will help protect the trade of essential goods such as medical and agricultural products, and crucial inputs. Avoiding trade restrictions also helps maintain quality standards and an exchange of knowledge and technologies, including for medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.
Global disruptions in supply chains and trade require global collaboration in containment measures and recovery-assisting policies. At the same time, national policies and firm-specific initiatives can support a quick recovery and increase resilience to future shocks in supply chains.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).
- Brower, Derek; Sheppard, David; Raval, Anjli and Meyer, Gregory. (2020) What negative US oil prices mean for the industry. Financial Times. 21 April 2020.
- BBC. (2020) China's virus-hit economy shrinks for first time in decades. 17 April 2020.
- WTO. (2020) Trade set to plunge as COVID-19 pandemic upends global economy. 8 April 2020.
- As mentioned in UNCTAD Key Statistics and Trends in International Trade 2017 (p. 1), the contraction of trade in 2015 and 2016 was a nominal rather than a real phenomenon as export volumes did not fall. The nominal trend was largely driven by falling commodity prices and an appreciation of the US dollar.
- Kiel Institute for the World Economy. (2020) Datenmonitor Corona-Krise. https://www.ifw-kiel.de/de/themendossiers/corona-krise/datenmonitor-corona-krise/
- Cadestin, Charles; De Backer, Koen; Desnoyers-James, Isabelle; Miroudot, Sébastien; Rigo, Davide and Ye, Ming. (2018) Multinational enterprises and global value chains: the OECD analytical AMNE database. OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 211. Paris: OECD
- UNCTAD. (2020) Review of Maritime Transport (Series).
- Skerritt, Jen. (2020) There Aren’t Enough Containers to Keep World Trade Flowing. Bloomberg. 18 March 2020.
- Heiland, Inga; Moxnes, Andreas; Ulltveit-Moe, Karen Helene and Zi, Yuan. (2019) Trade from Space: Shipping Networks and the Global Implications of Local Shocks. CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP14193.
- Carballo, Jerónimo; Graziano, Alejandro; Schaur, Georg and Volpe Martincus, Christian (2016) Endogeneous Border Times. IDB Working Paper 702; Clark, Don; Schaur, Georg and Kozlova, Valentina. (2014) Supply Chain Uncertainty as a Trade Barrier. University of Tennessee; Hummels, David L. and Schaur, Georg. (2013) Time as Trade Barrier. American Economic Review, 103(7): 2935-2959.
- Bushey, Claire. (2020) Airlines pivot to cargo to compensate for loss of passengers. Financial Times. 26 April 2020.
- Inoue, Hiroyasu and Todo, Yasuyuki. (2020) The Propagation of the Economic Impact through Supply Chains: The Case of a Mega-City Lockdown against the Spread of Covid-19. In: Covid Economics: A Real-Time Journal, Issue 2, 8 April 2020. London: CEPR
- Inoue, Hiroyasu and Todo, Yasuyuki. (2017) Propagation of negative shocks through firm networks: Evidence from simulation on comprehensive supply chain data. RIETI Discusson Paper 17-E-044; Barrot, Jean-Noel and Sauvagnat, Julien. (2016) Input specificity and the propagation of idiosyncratic shocks in production networks. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131 (3): 1543-1592.
- Cole, Matthew A.; Elliott, Robert J.R.; Okubo, Toshihiro and Strobl, Eric. (2017) Pre-disaster planning and post-disaster aid: Examining the impact of the great East Japan Earthquake. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 21 (Mar 2017): 291-302; Miroudot, Sébastian. (2020) Resilience versus robustness in global value chains: Some policy implications. In: Baldwin, Richard and Evenett, Simon J. (Eds.) COVID-19 and Trade Policy: Why Turning Inward Won’t Work. London: CEPR Press.
- Lee, Jong-Wha and McKibbin, Warwick J. (2004) Estimating the global economic cost of SARS. In: Knobler, Stacey; Mahmoud, Adel; Lemon, Stanley; Mack, Alison; Sivitz, Laura and Oberholtzer, Katherine. (Eds.) Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
- Cole, Matthew A.; Elliott, Robert J.R.; Okubo, Toshihiro and Strobl, Eric. (2017) Pre-disaster planning and post-disaster aid: Examining the impact of the great East Japan Earthquake. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 21 (Mar 2017): 291-302; Hummels, David L. and Schaur, Georg. (2013) Time as Trade Barrier. American Economic Review, 103(7):2935-2959.
- Cole, Matthew A.; Elliott, Robert J.R.; Okubo, Toshihiro and Strobl, Eric. (2017) Pre-disaster planning and post-disaster aid: Examining the impact of the great East Japan Earthquake. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 21 (Mar 2017): 291-302.
- Ilzetzki, Ethan and Reichardt, Hugo. (2020). Ramping up ventilator production: Lessons from WWII. VoxEU.org, 17 April 2020.