Cargo Ship Data Offer Real-Time Pulse of Global Trade, IMF Says

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(Bloomberg) -- New sources of data on worldwide ship traffic could help governments introduce new real-time trade statistics that in turn detect economic turning points more quickly, according to new International Monetary Fund research on how technology can improve official statistics.

Such an approach could be extended to “create a real-time worldwide indicator of global trade activity,” IMF researchers wrote in a working paper published Friday.

The findings have important implications for policy making because trade is an important share of gross domestic product in many countries, particularly small, open economies, and real-time tracking “may offer prompt and valuable insights into economic health,” they said.

It’s an enticing prospect for economists and policy makers around the world who have been trying to track how trade tensions are rippling through the global economy by using data that often lag behind the activity they measure by weeks or months. The World Trade Monitor by the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, for example, tracks shipments by 81 nations that account for about 99% of international trade, but the figures lag activity by about two months.

Close Gaps

More granular data on each ship and port could show emerging trade patterns, including those linked to global trade tensions, according to the paper by researchers Serkan Arslanalp, Marco Marini and Patrizia Tumbarello. That could also help close data gaps, especially for countries such as small island states where most trade is seaborne and statistical measurement is weak.

The researchers said they developed indicators of trade and maritime activity using Automatic Identification System vessel traffic data and using port calls in Malta as a benchmark. The small island nation of about 500,000 is very open to international trade, with both imports and exports consistently above the level of its gross domestic product, and depends heavily on imports for industrial and consumption needs, they said.

Government statistical authorities around the world are increasingly using AIS data to track trade, and statistical officials in the Netherlands, Singapore, and the U.K. are exploring the use of the information to complement official maritime statistics, according to the paper.

In addition, the European Statistical System has looked at using AIS data to improve existing statistics and potentially build new ones, and its work by several nations “suggest that AIS data can be a promising source for nowcasting trade.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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