(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Jamie McGeever
LONDON, Aug 11 (Reuters) - Hardening White House language on protectionism and free trade poses a growing risk to world trade, so the current narrative goes, but there are good reasons to believe upward momentum in global commerce will accelerate into next year.
Crucial to how this plays out will be the dollar.
A weaker dollar is generally associated with an upturn in global trade, while a strengthening dollar correlates with fading trade momentum, according to Oxford Economics, a think tank.
The vast bulk of world trade is denominated in dollars, even among countries who don’t use it as their main currency. A weaker dollar is more attractive for a company or country looking to finance trade operations.
It also eases global financing conditions, boosting demand for and access to cross-border capital flows. This is most pertinent to emerging markets, where the expansion of trade activity and dollar borrowing has been strongest.
The dollar has been on a rollercoaster in recent years. It rose 30 percent between mid-2014 and the end of last year as the U.S. economy outperformed its peers, and financial markets prepared for higher U.S. interest rates.
It’s down 9 percent this year as investors have lowered their expectations of how far the Federal Reserve will tighten policy and of how much progress President Donald Trump will make on infrastructure spending and banking, regulation and tax reform.
Oxford Economics has plotted an inverse relationship between the dollar and world trade since 2001. It’s been pretty tight. Global trade, despite the sabre-rattling, is growing at its fastest rate since 2010.
“Further depreciation in the dollar will help sustain this trade momentum,” said Marion Amiot at Oxford Economics.
The dollar could continue falling: the Fed looks close to the end of its tightening cycle, other central banks may soon narrow the dollar’s rate advantage, and U.S. growth is no longer going full tilt.
On the other hand, bets on the dollar weakening are already the biggest in years by some measures, and the stand-off between the United States and North Korea could boost the dollar’s allure as the safest and most liquid port in a global storm.
Like the dollar, world trade is at something of an inflection point. The latest trade figures from China, Germany and Britain show that activity in June and July was much softer than economists had expected.
As a share of overall global economic output, trade fell over five consecutive years between 2012 and 2016 to 21 percent from 25 percent. This partially reversed the rise between 1991 and 2008 from 14 percent to 25 percent, and fuelled talk that globalisation had peaked, especially given the rise of economic nationalism and protectionism in many countries recently.
Last November, economists at Deutsche Bank argued that the wave of globalisation since the Second World War was turning and that a new “mega-trend” was under way: “the peak, and likely unwind of globalisation”.
They also noted that the number of new free trade agreements signed in 2016 was the lowest in three decades, another sign that global commerce has peaked.
And the international mood music is far from cheery. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said last month it was a cause of “great concern” that the United States could start a trade war with Europe, while tension between Washington and Beijing has escalated.
This month, U.S. senators from both sides of the house have urged Trump to stand up to China as he prepares to launch an inquiry into its intellectual property and trade practices. In addition, the United States, Canada and Mexico start talks next week to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement.
But there are reasons to be optimistic.
Part of the decline in trade as a share of global GDP in recent years — potentially the lion’s share — can be explained by low prices rather than declining volumes. World consumer price inflation last year was 2.7 percent, almost half what it was in 2012.
Global trade volume is rising. In the first four months of this year, it was up around 8 percent on the same period in 2016, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists.
They also reckon the growth of emerging markets bodes well for trade. Emerging countries’ share of the production and consumption of traded goods has exploded in the past quarter century. These countries’ share of global output roughly doubled to 40 percent last year from 20 percent in 1991, and will continue rising in the years ahead.
And in Brexit-bound Britain, the value of the average monthly cross-border foreign exchange trade for small and medium-sized enterprises rose 16 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, according to WorldFirst.
Despite clouds on the horizon tomorrow, companies appear to be getting on with business today.
Reporting by Jamie McGeever Editing by Jeremy Gaunt