Asia is leading a recovery in global trade, but world trade volumes are still expected to shrink 10 percent this year, the World Trade Organization said on Wednesday.
The WTO's forecast for 2009 world trade, issued in a press release on Wednesday, confirmed comments by its Director General Pascal Lamy to Reuters in an interview in June, a revision from a previous forecast of a 9 percent contraction.
The WTO said however the contraction appeared to be slowing.
Our figures showed that Asian countries may be leading a recovery in global trade, Lamy told a news conference in Singapore, where he was attending a two-day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade meeting.
There's no room for complacency, he added.
Trade officials at the meeting offered cautious optimism over their export outlooks, with China, leading hopes for a tentative global recovery, saying the decline in its exports could ease in the second half of the year.
Lamy said it was too early to see if measures to boost trade financing were working, after a freeze in credit markets last year dried up funding for trading firms.
Has it worked? A bit too soon to say, Lamy said, referring to measures taken by the WTO and financial institutions to lift financing for exporters.
This trade finance is in many ways the oil of world trade, he said. In this region, it appears that more oil is coming back to the market.
World exports of merchandise goods grew 15 percent in nominal terms in 2008 to $15.78 trillion, the WTO said in its latest World Trade Report on Wednesday.
The WTO report noted that trade rose 2 percent in real or volume terms in 2008 after rising 6 percent in 2007.
However, trade still managed to grow more than global output, as is usually the case when production growth is positive, it said. Conversely, when output growth is declining, trade growth tends to fall even more, as is evident in 2009.
The share of developing country exports in world trade rose to a record 38 percent in 2008, the WTO said.
Germany retained its position as the world's leading merchandise exporter last year, with exports of $1.47 trillion, slightly larger than China's $1.43 trillion.
But WTO chief economist Patrick Low told Reuters in an interview the recovery in global exports was still fragile and a weak European performance meant China is expected to overtake Germany as the biggest merchandise exporter this year.
China's export performance faltered at the end of 2008. Its exports to the United States rose only 1 percent over the whole year after growth of 14 percent in the third quarter.
China's commerce minister said on Tuesday a recovery in its exports could not be guaranteed, though he said on Wednesday that overall its economy was stabilizing and improving.
The WTO said the United States was the biggest importer in 2008, bringing in $2.17 trillion of merchandise goods, 13.2 percent of the total, followed by Germany with a 7.3 percent share of $1.21 trillion.
Total world imports rose 15 percent to $16.12 trillion, giving a $345 billion discrepancy with exports, due to different ways of measuring imports and exports, the WTO data show.
The severity of the slowdown was reflected in a fall of 23 percent in air cargo traffic in December compared with a year earlier, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures, the WTO said.
The decline recorded in September 2001, when most of the world's aircraft were temporarily grounded following the attacks on the United States, was only 14 percent.
(For the full WTO report go to www.wto.org)
(Additional reporting by Kevin Yao and Candida Ng in SINGAPORE; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Jeremy Laurence)