Shifting sands: trade partner patterns since 2018

by Seung-Hee Koh, Catherine MacLeod and Elena Rusticelli

Global trade policy is undergoing a sea-change. The share of global merchandise imports subject to trade restrictions has risen particularly rapidly since 2018, initially due to a sharp increase in tariffs on bilateral trade between the United States and China. Since then, trade policy choices have steadily become more harmful to global trade in goods (Figure 1, Panel A). Trade policy uncertainty has also increased, alongside policy discussions about the re-location of value chains and ongoing changes in the design of national industrial policies. The latest OECD Economic Outlook (OECD, 2023) analyses trends in imports of manufactured goods across major OECD economies to understand what impact this has had on trade patterns.

So far, the increasing use of trade policies has coincided with a period of subdued world trade growth, but has not reduced global merchandise trade intensity (the ratio of trade in manufactures and commodities to GDP in volume terms). Nonetheless, since the global financial crisis, global trade intensity has risen only marginally, following a period of very sharp rises in the 1990s and early 2000s. The COVID crisis saw a shallower decline and faster rebound in merchandise trade intensity than the global financial crisis (Figure 1, Panel B). In 2022, global trade in goods was 22% of global GDP in volume terms, marginally higher than 2018.

The recent resilience of trade in volume terms may be linked to the huge increase in demand for goods during the COVID pandemic, as well as strong policy support during the pandemic and energy crises. Merchandise trade as a share of GDP generally rose in OECD countries between 2018 and 2022, including in Europe and Japan, offsetting a decline in Chinese merchandise trade intensity. However, merchandise trade intensity was relatively unchanged in the United States, where weak export growth offset a rise in import intensity.

Underneath the general rise in the value and volume of trade, imported manufactured goods at a country-level reveal important and differing shifts in the composition of manufactured goods imports since 2018 in the major economies (Figure 2). A particular issue of policy interest is the evolution of trade with geographically distant partners for key inputs (far-shoring) compared to trade with geographically closer trade partners (near-shoring).   

  • Shifting far-shoring: In the US, there have been sharp declines in China’s share of manufactured imports since 2018 – which have typically coincided with rising import shares from dynamic Asian economies. This includes goods where the 2018 tariffs are still applied. Evidence of near-shoring is limited, with Mexico and Canada’s share of imports rarely rising in the same categories where China’s share has fallen.
  • Expanding far-shoring: in the EU, China’s weight in manufactured imports has continued to grow steadily. In contrast to the US, this has been alongside rising import shares for dynamic Asian economies. As for the US, there is limited evidence of near-shoring: the share of imports from other OECD countries in Europe has fallen, largely driven by changes in import shares from the United Kingdom.
  • Changes at the margin: In Japan, the shifts in import shares have been much smaller than in the US or Europe. Its trade with the wider Asian region has increased steadily, although increases have been larger for dynamic Asia than China. As in Europe, this has been accompanied by a decline in the share of imports from other advanced economies.

So far, these shifts in trade patterns have occurred whilst aggregate trade has continued to expand broadly in line with global activity. However, in a global economy with slowing long-term growth prospects the economic costs of more harmful trade policies may become more evident over time.


OECD (2023), OECD Economic Outlook, Volume 2023 Issue 1, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/ce188438-en.

Policy changes to turn the tide

by Laurence Boone, OECD Chief Economist

For the past two years, global growth outcomes and prospects have steadily deteriorated, amidst persistent policy uncertainty and weak trade and investment flows. We now estimate global GDP growth to have been 2.9% this year and project it to remain around 3% for 2020-21, down from the 3.5% rate projected a year ago and the weakest since the global financial crisis. Short-term country prospects vary with the importance of trade for each economy though. GDP growth in the United States is expected to slow to 2% by 2021, while growth in Japan and the euro area is expected to be around 0.7 and 1.2% respectively. China’s growth will continue to edge down, to around 5.5% by 2021. Other emerging market economies are expected to recover only modestly, amidst imbalances in many of them. Overall, growth rates are below potential.

The mix between monetary and fiscal policies is unbalanced. Central banks have been easing decisively and timely, partly offsetting the negative impacts of trade tensions and helping to prevent a further rapid worsening of the economic outlook. Thereby, they have also paved the way for structural reforms and bold public investment to raise long-term growth, such as spending on infrastructure to support digitalisation and climate change. However, to date, other than a few countries, fiscal policy has been only marginally supportive, and not especially of investment, while asset prices have been buoyant.

The biggest concern, however, is that the deterioration of the outlook continues unabated, reflecting unaddressed structural changes more than any cyclical shock. Climate change and digitalisation are ongoing structural changes for our economies. In addition, trade and geopolitics are moving away from the multilateral order of the 1990s. It would be a policy mistake to consider these shifts as temporary factors that can be addressed with monetary or fiscal policy: they are structural. In the absence of clear policy directions on these four topics, uncertainty will continue to loom high, damaging growth prospects.

The lack of policy direction to address climate change issues weighs down investment. The number of extreme weather events is on the rise and insufficient policy action could increase their frequency. They may lead to significant disruptions to economic activity in the short term, and long-lasting damage to capital and land, as well as to disorderly migration flows. Adaptation plans are in their infancy, while mitigation, moving away from fossil fuels, through measures such as carbon taxes, has proved technically and politically challenging. Governments must act quickly: without a clear sense of direction on carbon prices, standards and regulation, and without the necessary public investment, businesses will put off investment decisions, with dire consequences for growth and employment.

Digitalisation is transforming finance, business models and value chains, through three main channels: investment, skills and trade. So far, only a small fraction of businesses appear to have successfully harnessed the strong productivity potential of digital technologies, which partly explains why digitalisation has been unable to offset other headwinds on aggregate productivity. Reaping the full benefits of digital technologies requires complementary investments in computer software and databases, R&D, management skills and training, which remains a challenge for too many firms. Digitalisation is also affecting people and work, because it confers a huge advantage to people whose main tasks require cognitive and creative skills, and penalises those whose work has a large routine element, and at the same time generates new forms of contractual arrangements that escape traditional social protection. But the policy environment to harness new technology – concerning skill upgrading, social protection, access to communication infrastructure, digital platform development, competition in digital markets and regulation of cross-border data flows – lags behind, making it difficult to reap the benefits of digitalisation in full.

The Chinese economy is structurally changing, rebalancing away from exports and manufacturing towards more consumption and services. Increasing self-sufficiency in core inputs for certain manufacturing sectors is reflecting a desire to move away from importing technology towards national production. A shift in energy utilisation to address pollution, and the rise in services also induce additional changes in Chinese demand for imports. China’s traditional contribution to global trade growth is set to slow and change in nature. While India is set to grow rapidly, its growth model is different and its contribution to global trade growth will not be enough to substitute for China as a global engine for traditional manufacturing.

Trade and investment are also structurally changing, with digitalisation and the rise of services, but also with geopolitical risks. The rise in trade restrictions is nothing new. About 1500 new trade restrictions have been implemented by G20 economies since the global financial crisis in 2008. Yet, the past two years have seen a surge in trade-restricting measures and an erosion of the rules-based global trading system, which is deep-rooted. Coupled with rising government support across a range of sectors, this induces disruptions in supply chains and reallocations of activities across countries that both exert a drag on current demand by reducing incentives to invest and undermine medium-term growth.
Against this backdrop, there is scope and an urgent need for much bolder policy action to revive growth. Reducing policy uncertainty, rethinking fiscal policy, and acting vigorously to address challenges raised by digitalisation and climate change, all have the potential to reverse the current slippery trend and lift future growth and living standards.

First, a clear policy direction for transitioning towards sustainable growth amidst digitalisation and climate challenges would trigger a marked acceleration of investment. Governments should focus not only on the short-term benefits of fiscal stimulus, but primarily on the long-term gains and to this end they should review their investment policy frameworks. The creation of national investment funds, focused on investing in the future, could help governments design investment plans to address market failures and take account of positive externalities for society as a whole. A number of governments already have dedicated funds of the sort, but their governance could be improved to ensure higher economic and social returns on investment.

Second, greater trade policy predictability and transparency could go a long way to reduce uncertainty and revive growth. For instance, there is a need to bring more transparency to the numerous forms of government support that distort international markets and to agree global rules on the transparency, predictability, reduction and prevention of such support.

Third, fiscal and monetary policies can be better activated, and to powerful effect if coordination prevails. There is scope to strengthen automatic stabilisers to preserve household income and consumption. Active coordination across the euro area would contribute to lift growth now. Moreover, should the outlook deteriorate more than we project, coordinated fiscal and monetary action across the G20, even allowing for the limited policy space some central banks have, could efficiently avert a recession, not least because coordination would bolster confidence.

The current stabilisation at low levels of economic growth, inflation and interest rates does not warrant policy complacency. The situation remains inherently fragile, and structural challenges – digitalisation, trade, climate change, persistent inequalities – are daunting. Rather, there is a unique window of opportunity to avoid a stagnation that would harm most people: restore certainty and invest for the benefit of all.


Growth is taking a dangerous downward turn

by Laurence Boone, OECD Chief Economist

For over 18 months, since the outbreak of trade hostilities, growth has been weakening, slowly but surely. In May 2018 the OECD, along with other organisations, was predicting global growth of around 4% for 2019, whereas our current forecasts are for growth of below 3%. In the first half of 2018, global investment was increasing at an annualised pace of nearly 5%, and trade over 4%. This year, the annualised growth rate of investment could slide to below 1%, with trade turning negative in the second quarter. Growth prospects have plummeted in the wake of trade and investment.

An urgent response is required, failing which we run the risk of finding ourselves stuck in a long period of low growth, the brunt of which will be felt primarily by the most vulnerable.

This is because the events of the last 18 months are not just a passing trend. The proliferation of tariffs and subsidies and the increasing unpredictability of trade policies have destroyed growth in international trade, triggering a sharp slowdown in industrial output and investments. When companies do not know what tomorrow will bring, they exercise their “wait-and-see option”. Given that an investment is a long-term commitment, they are waiting for this insidious trade war to settle down in order to know where to invest. However, when temporary uncertainty is recurrent and rooted, large amounts of investments are withheld, thereby affecting not just present day demand but also tomorrow’s growth potential and employment.

The investment gap created by this situation will have a long-term and structural impact on growth, all the more so as it will take time to clarify the new trade policy environment. This is clearly exemplified in the digital sector, given how the fastest investor always has a strong edge. But it is also the case for infrastructures, which are essential for business development. And at present, in addition to the digital sector, there is a global and structural need for infrastructure investment of nearly 7 trillion dollars per year, taking into account the energy transition in addition to traditional investment requirements. Paradoxically, the investment gap is growing at a time when governments can obtain long-term financing at very low, even negative, rates.

There is a therefore a danger of growth being bogged down for a long time. It is dangerous to use the good performance of the service sector as compared to the decline in industry as a justification for policy inaction given that the two are inextricably linked. It is equally risky to draw a distinction between countries with a large industrial sector and countries that are more service-based and therefore supposedly less at risk, given that integrated supply chains exist at both the regional and global level, and between services and industries.

The top priority is to remedy the drop in demand caused by the collapse in trade, which is affecting capital investments in particular. This can be achieved using a three-pronged economic policy, with a clear low rate policy, an infrastructure investment policy, and reforms to promote innovation. Monetary policy will struggle to halt the current downward spiral on its own, but it is detrimental to say that it has reached the limits of its capacity. Monetary policy may not be able to do everything, especially after years of providing support, but it still has a lot to offer. By providing long-term protection to the financing costs of both business and States, monetary policy creates the conditions required for private and public investment.

The euro area, for example, would already be in a much better position if it had turned to its budgetary tools, i.e. public investment, and carried out reforms to promote innovation much earlier! In our September Outlook, we demonstrate how annual public investments of around 0.5 percentage points of GDP in low-debt European countries, alongside reforms in favour of innovation in all the countries, would have allowed for a less aggressive monetary policy and encouraged short-term and long-term growth, without stretching public debt and while averting half of the increase in the price of financial assets over the past five years.

The second lever is to restore the confidence of businesses in their ability to find markets. It is now evident that trade tensions are not a temporary side-show. The international framework which governed trade has been permanently impaired, and the WTO as we know it will not come back.

Public recognition that global trade is experiencing a structural shift, that trade agreements going forward will no longer be global but perhaps more regional and more targeted, and that there is a commitment between like-minded countries to push ahead, would send a clear message to businesses to resume investment.

Growth is languishing, but there is a lot that public policy can do. This includes restoring confidence in the collective ability to establish trade rules which are clearer, more transparent, and afford more protection to citizens; and taking advantage of the predictable rates provided by monetary policies to boost investment, and with it growth and the jobs of tomorrow. It can be done. It urgently needs to be done.

More info: http://www.oecd.org/economy/outlook/

Unsatisfactory global growth:  A call to policy action!

CLM with credit press conference Interim Eco Outlook Feb 2016



by Catherine L. Mann

OECD Chief Economist and Head of the Economics Department


Welcome to the OECD Economics Department’s new ECOSCOPE blog !

Our Interim Economic Outlook launched today shows a troubling picture—world growth stuck at 3% in 2016, and only 3.3% in 2017, with substantial volatility in financial markets raising new risks.  The OECD’s mantra is “better policies for better lives”  and that is central to our assessment that a stronger policy response is urgently needed to get global growth out of this low-growth equilibrium.  Monetary stimulus alone cannot reverse many of the worrying trends seen in the Interim including weak trade, low investment and an apparent slowing of trend productivity.  Given very low interest rates, now is an opportune time for collective fiscal action, focusing  on investment spending that will raise growth in the near term and underpin long-term output potential.  Greater ambition on structural reforms to provide an environment conducive to private investment goes hand-in-hand. ( On 26 February, we will launch our annual Going for Growth assessment of structural policy needs and the progress countries are making towards achieving more productive economies with better quality jobs (details to be posted on this site)).   Monetary, fiscal, and structural policy tools are synergistic and all need to be deployed at this time.

Does the call for more fiscal action by the OECD represent a change of view ?

In a well-known phrase, Keynes wrote “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”.   So, what is new?

First, OECD governments have more fiscal space than they did in the immediate post-crisis period. The sovereign debt crisis has faded and the most severe banking problems have been addressed. Budget deficits have fallen in many countries following budgetary consolidation and falling interest costs. The long-term interest rate is far lower than it was 3-years ago with negative interest rates on government borrowing of a few years and the ability to raise money at longer horizons at a minimal cost.

Second, the persistent downgrade of forecasts across the economics profession in recent years raises deep questions about how the economy is operating. Some key mechanisms that drive economic recoveries seem to be not working:  wage pressures are exceptionally weak even in countries where unemployment has fallen; inequality is rising; business investment is not responding to the extraordinarily low cost of capital;  currency depreciations are not leading to robust exports;  inflation pressures seem non-existent across many economies despite exceptional monetary policy action; productivity growth and diffusion innovation appear to have slowed. The thread that runs through these disconnects is weak demand, hence the need to use all policy tools to full effect.

A scenario exercise in the Interim shows the potential growth gains, and fiscal sustainability benefits of a collective action on fiscal spending.

1st year effects of a 1/2 percent of GDP public investment stimulus by all OECD countries
Change from baseline


There are many open questions about what are the key issues facing policymakers, and how they should balance both immediate and longer-term objectives.  This blog is an opportunity to debate these topics!

We hope that windows into research by OECD economists posted on this blog will share new insights about the evidence and the ‘’better  policies” we need to ensure the ‘’better lives’’.   Please join the conversation!


Achieving prudent debt targets using fiscal rules

Interim Economic Outlook

The Future of Productivity