Commerce has shown a strange resilience to covid-19
IN QUENTIN TARANTINO’S“Kill Bill: Volume 2”, an action drama, the protagonist, played by Uma Thurman, punches her way out of a coffin. Global trade in goods has performed a similar death-defying stunt during the covid-19 pandemic. In April things looked dismal. Some predicted global trade would slump by more than 30% this year, compared with 2019. But after a gut-wrenching spring, trade volumes recorded their biggest monthly rise on record in June, the last month of available data (see chart). Oxford Economics, a consultancy, predicts that in 2020 as a whole volumes may drop by 10%.
This resilience has defied recent experience, as well as expectations. In 2009, when global GDP fell by 0.1% in the final year of the financial crisis, trade plunged by a whopping 13%. This year the IMF forecasts that global GDP could fall by 4.9%, ie, 50 times more than in 2009. So why will the hit to trade probably be smaller?
After the financial crisis trade volumes fell much further than GDP mostly because people stopped buying heavily traded durable goods, such as cars. But in the current crisis, untraded domestic services have been harder hit than they were back then. Going to the cinema or a restaurant halted during lockdown. Buying an imported fridge did not. That has made the drop in trade relative to GDP smaller.
Moreover, the robustness of the world’s production apparatus has underpinned trade flows. Covid-19 froze supply chains, but in Asia at least they swiftly started to thaw. According to Simon Evenett of the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, the number of trade restrictions applied on medical goods and medicine since the start of the crisis peaked in April, and has since fallen by 15%. Even more importantly, lockdowns were lifted more quickly than expected, allowing exporting powerhouses like China and Germany to reopen factories and boost output.
此外，全球强健的生产体系为贸易流动提供了有力支撑。新冠肺炎导致供应链陷入冰封，但至少在亚洲，供应链很快又开始解冻。瑞士圣加仑大学（University of St Gallen）的西蒙·伊文奈特（Simon Evenett）表示，自疫情爆发后对医疗产品和药品实施的贸易限制数量在4月达到顶峰，此后已减少了15%。更重要的是，解封时间早于预期，这让中国、德国等出口强国的工厂得以复工，推动了产出。
Pandemic-induced demand gave trade in some products extra pep. America’s imports of protective equipment tripled between March and July, calculates Panjiva, a trade-data company. Covid-related products including computing equipment for home-working has accounted for the majority of China’s year-on-year export growth in each month since June. Eytan Buchman of Freightos, an online marketplace, reports that ocean-freight prices are surging for routes between America and South-East Asia, partly because of “near-frantic” e-commerce offerings by small businesses.
Policymakers have played a pivotal role in the trade revival. Monetary and fiscal firepower was bigger and faster than trade experts had expected. Central-bank liquidity measures kept trade finance flowing better than it did during the financial crisis, says Jennifer McKeown of Capital Economics, a research outfit.
政策制定者在贸易复苏中发挥了关键作用。货币和财政政策的“火力”比贸易专家预计的更猛、更快。研究机构凯投宏观（Capital Economics）的詹妮弗·麦克考温（Jennifer McKeown）表示，央行的流动性措施让贸易融资的流动好于全球金融危机时的情况。
Although the trade performance is cause for relief, no one should declare victory yet. A second wave of lockdowns, or overhasty efforts to curtail economic stimulus, could derail the recovery. The value of exports from South Korea dipped in August relative to July, as did those of China after adjusting for an artificially depressed base in 2019. Robert Koopman, chief economist of the World Trade Organisation, which oversees global trade, doubts there will be a sustained V-shaped recovery.
Overlaying this is a concern about the lingering unevenness of trade. Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, says that the trade slump has shrunk the gap between most countries’ imports and exports, reducing imbalances. Yet there have been two standout exceptions. The first is China, whose rapid reopening has sent its exports of goods surging to a level last seen before the Sino-American trade war—almost $60bn higher than imports in August. The second is America, whose policies to stoke demand have had the side-effect of causing its trade deficit to increase further—to around $80bn in July.
在此之上还有对贸易持续不平衡的担忧。美国智库外交关系协会（Council on Foreign Relations）的布莱德·赛斯特（Brad Setser）表示，贸易衰退缩小了大多数国家进口与出口之间的差距，减轻了不平衡。然而有两个国家却是明显的例外。首先是中国，快速复工复产令其商品出口飙升到中美贸易战爆发前的水平——8月的出口额比进口额高出近600亿美元。其次是美国，它用以刺激需求的政策带来了副作用，导致贸易逆差进一步扩大，在7月达到了800亿美元左右。
This imbalance is ominous. Although the so-called Phase One trade deal between America and China was meant to prop up American exports to China, so far it has disappointed. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is haranguing China ahead of elections in November. Trade may not have performed as badly as many feared. But it still has an alarming ability to pack a Thurmanesque punch. ■