Tag Archives: global trade

November – Trade Outlook

A Pivotal Meeting – A Closer look at US – China Trade

On the verge of their summit, Presidents Xi and Trump could not be in more different places. President Xi has become the champion of globalisation and a world order at which China is centre-stage. The National Congress of the Communist Party of China confirmed his leadership of the country for at least the next five years with no clear successor. By incorporating Xi’s philosophy to make China great into its constitution, the Party elevated Xi to the same status as Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping. China’s One Belt One Road policy, alongside its promotion of trade at the WTO means it is has become the focus, not just for trade between emerging economies in the Southern hemisphere, but also a pivot around which trade power is shifting from West to East.

In contrast, Donald Trump travels to Asia on the tide of economic nationalism and isolationism. His anti-trade rhetoric is, at best, damaging many of the multi-lateral structures that have been central to the way in which globalisation, such as the North America Free Trade Area, the EU, and, most recently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Trump’s discussion with Xi will focus on reducing, even eliminating, China’s trade surplus with the US (Figure 1). This trade surplus is nothing new, but has been widening since the mid 1990’s when China’s market first started to open up; Microsoft, for example, moved into the market around 1996. In 1996 China’s imports from the US were 27% of their exports to the US. This peaked at 35% in 2013, but the gap has been narrowing since and now stands at 31%.

Figure 1:          Value of Chinese Trade with the US ($US bn), 1996-2018 (2017-18 forecast)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

Indeed, it is possible to argue that Chinese exports to the US are a function of the globalisation of US electronics companies. Figure 2 shows the top five Chinese export sectors to the US in 2016 and projected for 2017. The first two, electrical machinery and equipment and components and machinery include mobile phones, washing machines, semiconductors and computers. Clearly, they inherently contain intellectual property which is a key focus for the discussions between the two leaders. These sectors also dwarf trade between the two countries in other sectors which actually might reflect more closely a pattern of trade between an emerging economy and a developed one: furniture, toys and clothing. Top US exports to China include the catch-all “Commodities Not Elsewhere Specified” which proxies well for oil and arms trade, and aerospace. Most of the top export sectors from the US to China show slight declines between 2016 and 2017 except aerospace.

Figure 2:          Value of China’s top five export and import sectors with the US (US$ bn), 2016 & 2017

Source:            Equant Analytics 2017

President Trump’s mantra since his election has been “America first” and most recently his actions in relation to Canada’s Bombardier were directly to support Boeing. In his discussions with President Xi, therefore, it is likely that aerospace could also be a key part of the trade negotiations (Figure 3). For example, exports of large aircraft were worth US$ 124 billion in 2016 and exports of large and smaller helicopters are projected to grow at 24.6% and 11.1% between 2017 and 2018.

Figure 3:          Chinese imports of aircraft from the US, 2016-17 and 2017-18 compared (year on year change, %)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

In spite of all this, between China and the US it is clear who is in the weaker position. Perhaps because the US is realising that the period of globalisation up to around 2014 tilted trade, indeed economic power, towards emerging economies like South Korea and China, President Trump is now fighting a rear-guard action to maintain the central role in global trade that US companies have historically played. Using China’s trade in arms and ammunition as an example; China’s exports have grown at an annualised rate of 6% since 2009 while its imports have shrunk by 20% annually. Its imports are now just 2.5% of its exports in this sector. This tells its own story: while the US assumed it had global trade power leadership, it can no longer take this for granted. Globalisation and trade power is pivoting towards China. Trump’s meeting with Xi may merely confirm this as inevitable.

October – Trade Outlook

The aftermath of Germany’s election: how does trade help?

Germany’s election at the end of September was predicted to be dull. Angela Merkel was to be re-elected, possibly on a larger share of the vote, and the country would be able to focus on defining its role at the heart of a re-generated Europe. In the end, the Alternative für Deutschland won 12.6% of the share of the vote – the largest share of parliamentary representation of any extreme right wing party since the World War II. Germany’s parliament is now divided between six parties and the centre right CDU-CSU and the centre left SPD parties have been given a warning by voters that “business as usual” is not enough. Their votes shrank to 36% and just over 20% respectively.

Inevitably there will be a period of domestic uncertainty. The SPD has already stated that it would not be part of a new Grand Coalition. This leaves Angela Merkel the complex task of forming a “Jamaica” coalition of the CDU-CSU, the liberal FDP and the Greens (so called because the colours are those of the Jamaican flag). This will not be an easy process. There are rumours, following the departure of Wolfgang Schäuble from the Finance Ministry that this post is being left open as a negotiating tool for Angela Merkel as she starts discussions with the other two parties.

However, it is possible that trade offers a solution to at least one of Germany’s persistent problems: under-investment in some of the infrastructures in the country that are weak and that may have contributed to the sense of social as well as economic exclusion that the voters in the eastern regions exhibited. In 2016 Germany posted its largest trade surplus ever at some USD 230 bn – 15% higher than China’s at USD 200 bn (Figure 1). Germany’s budget surplus, to which the trade surplus contributes, was EUR 18.6 bn in the first half of 2017. Much of this surplus has been achieved through its adherence to stringent, and well-documented, austerity measures. But even in Germany economists and politicians alike are beginning to worry that the surplus is unsustainable: the broadband and road infrastructures in the country are under-invested, for example, and some fiscal stimulus would further boost the European economy.

Figure 1:          Germany’s trade with the world, selected years, 1996-2016 (USD m)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

Germany is to some extent a victim of its own success. The Hartz reforms in the 1990s and aggressive austerity in the wake of reunification provided the country with a more flexible labour market alongside lower government borrowing than any of its European counterparts. But Germany has also been hugely successful in its main economic focus – trade. Its goods are competitive abroad and its supply chains extend throughout Europe and beyond.

Yet this causes political problems in terms of its foreign relations. Throughout his presidency so far Donald Trump has branded Germany and its surplus as “bad, very bad” in his tweets. He has attributed Germany’s success in exporting to the US as a product of the under-valuation of the Euro that has enabled Germany’s manufacturers to price their goods advantageously in overseas market undermining, for example, American manufacturers. The size of Germany’s trade surplus with the US, and the fact that it has widened since the introduction of the euro (in 1999) is a function both of this and of the fact that Germany’s products compete on quality as well (Figure 2).

Figure 2:          Germany’s trade with the United States, 1996-2016 (USD m)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

But while Germany does export successfully to the biggest countries in the world, among them China and the US, it also operates its supply chains across Europe. In other words, the budget surplus may create distortions, particularly in weaker European countries, but it also helps fuel growth in those very same countries. The automotive sector is the best example: Figure 3 shows the projected annualised growth of German cars and components for its top five import and export partners. It shows how car and component imports from the likes of the Czech Republic and Hungary are predicted to grow to 2020 more quickly than from the US, France or Spain while exports of cars and components from Germany are growing at a slower or similar pace.


Germany’s top five import partners

Germany’s top five export partners

Czech Republic


United States




United Kingdom






United States








Figure 3:          Projected annual growth of Germany’s top five import and export partners in the automotive sector, 2016-2020

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

Germany’s surpluses tell the story of its success in adjusting to two major shocks: its reunification and the global financial crisis. The process has been tough on many Germans, particularly those in the eastern regions and this was reflected in the recent election result. However, Germany is not about to become less domestically stable. It may enter a period of self-reflection, and this is not necessarily a good thing while geopolitical uncertainties are rife. But the AfD and die Linke (the extremist left party) account for just over 21% of the vote between them. Populism in Germany, as with other countries in Europe, has been driven by a sense of economic and social exclusion, largely in the eastern regions of Germany and catalysed by Angela Merkel’s controversial response to the migrant crisis in 2015. To some extent it would be possible to argue that the rise of extremism, because it is so predominantly in the east, is a function of the last nearly 30 years since reunification. Where in other countries populism is a function of exclusion from globalisation, in Germany it is driven by a sense of exclusion from Germany’s second “economic miracle”.

Angela Merkel will realise that this domestic uncertainty is dangerous. Using the surplus to focus on some of the problems of under-investment, including suitable structures to integrate the large numbers of immigrants, will undoubtedly help. It is unlikely that the trade surplus will diminish any time soon – Germany is too competitive for that. But with the trade surplus comes influence, particularly in foreign policy terms. In the run up to the election, Germany’s voters seemed very aware of the responsibility that they had in providing the stability at the heart of Europe in what seem to be turbulent times. The Chancellor’s challenge now is to convert that responsibility into policy.


“The Weaponization of Trade: the Great Unbalancing of Politics and Economics” 
Rebecca Harding and Jack Harding.

October 25th 2017 * 170pp paperback *£9.99
ISBN 978-1-907994-72-2

PRE-PUBLICATION ORDERS, WITH FREE UK P+P GO TO: http://londonpublishingpartnership.co.uk/wot-advance-purchase/









September – Trade Outlook

Trade Wars: Why the US must think before it acts

There are times when it is helpful for a nation’s leaders to think carefully about the consequences of their statements. North Korea tested an H-bomb capable of being fitted to an Inter-continental ballistic missile on the 3rd September. Without any exaggeration, this is a momentous time for the world’s security. North Korea is playing with both China’s will to intervene substantively and the US’s will unilaterally to start a major war on the Korean peninsula. China is keen to avoid any action that will result in a stream of refugees coming across the border from North Korea. The US, despite statements from President Trump that any aggression by North Korea will be met with “fire and fury” will be reluctant to avoid full-scale conflict because of the risk of retaliation.

So this has become a Trade War. On the 3rd September, President Trump tweeted, “The United States is considering in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any other country doing business with North Korea.” This is a bold statement targeted, of course, at China which accounts for around 85% of North Korea’s trade value. Since Steve Bannon’s statement in August 2017 that the US is effectively fighting a trade war with China, the statement could be interpreted as simply a desire to take on China’s relationship with North Korea and its trade surplus with the US at the same time.

President Trump should be wary what he wishes for. Apart from China, North Korea’s top ten trade partners (imports and exports) include, Russia, India, the Philippines, Singapore, Chile, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Switzerland and Mexico. China itself exports around $US 2.8bn into North Korea and other countries are substantially smaller. Russia, for example, imports just $US 68m and India some $US 54m. For many other countries the amounts are in the low millions. However, if the President’s words are to be taken at face value, then all of these countries should be included. Taken together and including China, these countries accounted for nearly 48% of the US’s total trade of $US 3.9 trillion in 2016 (Figure 1).



Figure 1:          Value of US trade for North Korea’s top 22 trading partners ($US bn)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

Of greater interest is the sectors that would be affected by trading with countries that “do business” with North Korea. Mexico is a major player in the US’s electronics, automotive and machinery and components sectors and, of course, in oil. But its trade with North Korea is small, as is the trade of many other countries with North Korea. It makes sense to look just at China and how its key sectors are interwoven into strategic sectors for the US (Figure 2).

This chart in itself depicts the frustration that the US has with China’s dominance of its trade. US supply chains, are irretrievably interwoven with China. For example, many of the imports from China in Electrical Equipment and Machinery are intermediate manufactured goods, nevertheless, these goods are part of other supply chains, for example in automotives or aerospace.


Figure 2:          US trade with China in non-oil strategic sectors ($US million 2016)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

 Quite apart from any impact that the decision to stop trading with all those nations that have trade with North Korea, there is a sense in which any sanctions, or sanctions-like move, is counter-productive. North Korea, it seems, already has nuclear launch capacity and this is not a new phenomenon. The trend started in 2008 in nuclear-related dual-use goods and, during the process of Kim Jong Un’s accession, imports of propulsion equipment started to increase (Figure 3).


Figure 3           Value of North Korea’s trade in selected dual-use goods, 1996-1997, $USm)

Source             Equant Analytics, 2017

There are already signs that North Korea is winning the deterrence war. Their calculation is that both China and the US are “paper tigers”: they can bluster, but in the end there is little that they can materially do. There are no clear diplomatic or military answers – all have unimaginable consequences and are therefore likely to be avoided if possible. Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power will be a tough pill for the US to swallow and again is unlikely without some form of diplomatic ‘victory.’

But what is absolutely clear is that economics solutions may well be equally as unimaginable. Loose words in military terms may increase the risk of miscalculation and war as a result. Equal discipline should be applied to the use of language in economic and trade terms. Ending trade with countries who do business with North Korea is impractical and would be an act of assured economic destruction for the US itself. Maybe this is the ultimate deterrence against a trade war with China as well; weaponizing trade cannot be the way forward.

“The Weaponization of Trade: the great unbalancing of politics and economics,” by Rebecca Harding and Jack Harding will be published on the 25th October by London Publishing Partnership. Click here to find out more and to pre-order a copy.

July – Trade Outlook

Three charts to show why the South and East China Seas matter

Japan does not officially have an army, it has a Self Defence Force. So, when it starts sending warships into the South China Seas in an attempt to keep China’s territorial claims in check, it is clear there is a problem. Its Izumo helicopter carrier’s presence is to provide the assurance to the region that it is willing to move into a more proactive military role in the interests of regional security at a time when US interest is at best only focused on North Korea, and at worst, waning. While the US nominally retains its commitment to the “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (Fonops) to provide a base for regional security, its military operations are taking a lower key and not being publicised as they were under the Obama regime. As the US appears to look away, China continues to build and protect what it deems its sovereign and economic rights. China can play a long game without using its military muscle, but the very fact that it is demonstrating its regional influence reinforces the perception that tensions in the region are dangerous.

The region matters to world trade flows and to its energy security. The importance of the South and East China Seas cannot be understated. It is not just a source of geopolitical tension, it is also a major trading route. The countries in the region’s US$ 10.7tn trade accounted for just over 54% of world trade in 2016. More than this, the countries in the South and East China seas account for just over 40% of world oil trade (Figure 1). Any risk of disruption or threat of instability should make markets and commentators alike feel nervous as a result, not just because of the spill-over effects into the global trade system but also because of the region’s strategic importance.


Figure 1:  Share of world oil trade for countries in the South and East China Seas area 2016
Source:  Equant Analytics 2017

The region matters to China as well. Trade with the other countries in the South China Seas account for some 51% of China’s trade (Figure 2)

Figure 2:   China’s trade with nations and Hong Kong in the South and East China Seas
Source:  Equant Analytics, 2017

Hong Kong is China’s biggest trading partner in the region at more than twice the value of trade compared with Japan, its second largest trading partner. The regional partners, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam in particular, are important contributors to regional supply chains in electronics and machinery & components meaning that their regional fortunes are intertwined. As China has gone through its economic reform programme of the past few years, it is these regional partners who have had to adjust. But any political instability in the region threatens trade flows within the region as well as between the region and the rest of the world. This impacts China just as much as it does other countries and as a result, China will be keen to ensure that there is no escalation of tensions beyond rhetorical ones simply because it is in its own strategic interest.

China’s strategic interest is evident in the East China Seas through its relationship with North Korea. As sanctions have become more stringent, China’s share of North Korean trade has increased (Figure 3). The momentum projections suggest that this may well stabilise over the next few years but at over 85% of North Korea’s trade, China has a strong strategic leverage over Pyongyang.

Figure 3:   Percentage share of North Korea’s trade accounted for by China (1996 – 2021)
Source:  Equant Analytics, 2017

The US and China have engaged in talks since their Summit in April, not overtly about North Korea – but about trade. Why? President Trump explained this in a tweet on the 11th April: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” In other words, trade is a strategic tool to gain influence over North Korea. An explicit “trade war” between the two countries was avoided because of the post Summit “100 day plan” and although the deals struck since then have been modest, they have the effect of diverting global attention away from the region.

The perception of geopolitical risk in the South and East China Seas is not new. In the South China Seas the disputes are territorial and between countries; the role of the US has been to keep the trade route that it represents open in the economic strategic interests of the world. The risks in the East China Seas and Korean Peninsular are as much about strategic influence as they are about trade.

However, a deliberate armed conflict is unlikely as the example of North Korea and the “trade deals” with China show. It is simply too important to the US and the world, in terms of energy security, in terms of trade flows, in terms of economic interests and more generally in terms of national interest and power. Increasingly, the disputes in the region are centred around strategic influence. Trade, or the threat of disruption to trade is the means by which any conflict will be fought: it is a bargaining chip. China knows this and holds increasingly more of the cards as the US looks away.




April – Trade Outlook

What does trade tell us about the oil price? In the first Trade Outlook of 2017, we pointed to a somewhat negative outlook for oil prices. Although analysts at the time saw prices increasing as demand recovered and production stayed at similar levels, based on our trade forecast for oil, we felt that the picture was at best neutral and maybe slightly negative. This was in line with OECD thinking but the World Bank and the EIU at the time were both suggesting that prices would rise.

The reason for the more negative outlook that we had at the time was because of the very high correlation between world trade values and the oil price (Figure 1). This correlation, of 90%, does not tell us how the oil price will move. It simply tells us that it is highly correlated with trade values, which is reasonable since oil is the world’s third largest traded sector with a value of $1.9 trillion in 2015. However, it does tell us that if trade is projected to remain static, then there is a greater likelihood that oil prices will also remain static.


Figure 1:  Monthly value of world trade in oil (USDm) vs oil spot price (last price monthly), Jan 2010-Jan 2017
Source:  Equant Analytics, 2017

The trajectory for oil prices since January has been downwards reflecting the flatter pattern in world trade.  Last month highlighted the difficulties of predicting oil prices. In the middle of the month, oil prices had fallen 10% in one week to their lowest level since OPEC cut production in November 2016. In the last week of the month, prices had rallied with the best week so far in 2017. A Reuters poll at the end of March suggested that analysts were not expecting oil prices to rise to $60 a barrel until 2018 at the earliest. But with the trade outlook flat for 2016 and 2017 and growing only slightly into 2017-18, the prediction of $60 a barrel in the near term would appear to be only possible were there an unexpected dose of market hubris! (Figure 2)

Figure 2            Projected growth in total world trade vs world trade in oil year on year (2016-17 and 2017-18)
Source: Equant Analytics 2017

There are two key issues. The first is whether demand is increasing relative to production. As the US increases its output of shale, there is little doubt that the US itself will be able to meet its domestic demand, taking market share from OPEC and non-OPEC aligned producers. This will keep prices flat during the course of the year if this pattern continues and, potentially at least, push prices downwards if the OPEC producers decide to go for an all-out price war when they meet in May. Falling projected global trade in oil suggests that demand will be at best weak relative to prices.

The second is the shift in the patterns of production in the market. This is evident in how trade has grown over the past five years and how it is projected to grow over the next five years (Figure 3).

Figure 3           Selected mineral fuel trade vs electrical energy growth 2010-15 and 2016-21 (CAGR %)
Source             Equant Analytics, 2017

The prospects for growth in each mineral fuel sector is more positive from the second period with 2016 as its base compared to the post-crisis period. However, only trade in petroleum wax, coke and bitumen and bitumen and shale show positive annualized growth and the most substantial projected growth is in the bitumen and shale sector. Although electrical energy’s decline in trade growth is projected to slow, it is still a very small sector compared to other mineral fuel sectors and its improvement does little to suggest that a major change is on its way.

What this suggests is that the oil sector as a whole is likely to dominate for some time to come despite environmental pressures. Demand is growing, but it appears that it will be met by current energy sources rather than new ones. The greatest improvement in trade growth over the two time periods is in bitumen and shale and this corroborates the view that US shale production, increasingly cost effective as it is, is likely to compete favourably in oil markets with crude and refined oil to meet the growth in demand, particularly in the US itself.