Cargo Ships are docked at the Mumbai Port in India. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)

One of World Trade's Top Prognosticators Is Worried About 2019

(Bloomberg) -- One of the key engines of the world economy -- global trade -- looks increasingly precarious as leading indicators point to a meaningful slowdown next year, according to the World Trade Organization’s chief economist.

“When you look at those leading indicators, they continue to weaken. It’s almost like a death from a thousand cuts,” Robert Koopman said in an interview Thursday. “There’s not any one big change in those leading indicators but, boy, they are starting to add up.”

Financial markets have been increasingly concerned about a possible slowdown in the world economy next year and the impact of President Donald Trump’s trade wars. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Wednesday pointed to investor and business fears over trade tensions and global growth going into 2019. FedEx Corp. and other firms have also warned of being hit by slower economic growth.

The WTO in September downgraded its forecast for global trade growth, predicting the volume of goods moving around the world would expand by 3.9 percent this year and slow to 3.7 percent in 2019.

Koopman said the organization was holding to those forecasts for now, though he added that risks were rising that they could be downgraded again early next year.

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A WTO tracker of leading indicators such as purchasing manager indices from around the world and air and sea freight points to slowing global trade momentum, he said.

“If we have an expectation that it is going to move in any direction it’s going to be down,” Koopman said of the 2019 projections.

Reasons for concern are surfacing in all the world’s major economies, Koopman said, citing the Fed’s downgrade this week of its own projections for U.S. growth next year. “We’re concerned about the EU. We’re concerned about China. We’re concerned about the U.S.,” he said.

Koopman said the biggest concern is not over the direct impact of the tit-for-tat tariff wars that the U.S. has engaged in, most prominently with China but also with allies from the EU to Canada. Though U.S. and China together account for almost 40 percent of global output, the goods trade between the world’s two largest economies represented less than 3.2 percent of global trade, according to the WTO.

One of World Trade's Top Prognosticators Is Worried About 2019

Instead, Koopman said, the real risk is how those trade conflicts could weigh on businesses and consumer sentiment and spending around the world.

“The shoe that all of us are waiting to see is: Does the uncertainty -- the policy uncertainty raised by this conflict -- spill over into investment and consumer behavior,’’ Koopman said.

There are some initial signs that business investment is being hit and that consumers in both the U.S. and China are starting to hold back on purchases, Koopman said.

“It isn’t a disaster yet,” he said. “It’s weak, but if we start to see a downturn, real declines in investment, that could be pretty problematic for global trade and global growth in general.”

The WTO’s 3.9 percent forecast for global trade growth this year is down from 4.7 percent in 2017. Still, that’s not bad historically: Global trade volumes grew at a rate of just 1.8 percent in 2016.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.