Navigating the New Realities of Global Trade

McKinsey&Company | By Tari Ellis, Alan FitzGerald, Nadia Terfous, and Yassir Zouaoui | Apr 2018

Navigating new realities of global trade - Navigating the New Realities of Global TradeThe long-term future of global trade will be reshaped by technological shifts and changes in international trade policy.

During the two decades before the 2008 global financial crisis, the world economy seemed to be on an irreversible course of ever-deepening globalization. Global trade expanded nearly eightfold in the 1990s and 2000s and doubled as a share of global gross domestic product (GDP). However, governments and companies around the world are now facing new uncertainties concerning the future growth of trade. While the volume and throughput of goods and services trade have continued to grow in the aftermath of the crisis (reaching historic highs in 2017), the value of these flows has declined over the last two years. As a share of GDP, trade has fallen from about 30 percent in 2009 to 2014 to about 27 percent in 2016, and it is not expected to grow in the coming years based on the forecast from the World Trade Organization. These trends and forecasts are raising questions about the future role of trade as an engine of global economic growth.

The long-term future of trade will be shaped by great global changes, including rapid urbanization, the rise of a consuming middle class in emerging economies, geopolitical complexities, and the evolution of international financial flows. However, two trends stand out with respect to the degree of uncertainty surrounding their future impact—these include ongoing technological shifts and a changing international-trade-policy climate.

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Changing technologies will continue to have a profound effect on the pace and composition of trade growth. At the moment, while established technologies, such as bar codes and containerization, may have already achieved most of their amplifying potential, a range of relatively new technologies, including 3-D printing, automation, and e-commerce platforms are beginning to come online and promise to have equal, if not greater, transformative effects on trade.

Another key source of uncertainty is the evolving global policy environment. With the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and a similar dampening of popular sentiment toward globalization in other Western countries, a clear horizon of ever-growing international integration seems now behind us. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm for deeper trade ties is accelerating in many emerging economies. China and other emerging-market countries are looking to drive ambitious new trade-cooperation initiatives that could “carry the torch” even if the pace of West-driven liberalization efforts decelerates.

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