FX International Payments

The Economic Effects Of China’s Global Trade Slowdown

By Frances Coppola

Fluctuations in the Chinese economy impacts many other markets, due to its size and broad reach. Throughout recent history, we have seen this, but none as significant as the 2015. So what caused the Chinese international trade slump?

The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) 2016 Article IV report assesses China’s economy, saying that imports, in particular, have fallen significantly over the past two years in real terms. It describes two principal reasons:


  • Weaker domestic investment accounts for about 40-to-50 percent of the fall in imports
  • Weaker exports account for about 40 percent of the fall in imports.2

How Does Weaker Investment Cause A Fall In Global Trade?


The IMF says that China’s fast growth in the last decade or so was principally driven by domestic investment and exports. Domestic consumption has been much weaker and the savings rate has been very high. But maturing economies tend to rebalance, transitioning away from investment and goods exports and towards consumption and services. The fall in investment is partly due to the strategic desire of the Chinese government to rebalance the economy.


As investment falls, so do imports of the raw materials and industrial equipment needed to construct housing, factories, roads, bridges, power stations, etc. Machinery and transport, which the IMF says make up about 40 percent of total imports, have been particularly hard hit, although this is partly due to weakening demand for re-exports from China’s smaller Asian neighbours (for which China acts as a kind of global trade hub). Commodities, which make up 30 percent of total imports, have also fallen as real estate and infrastructure investment declines.


The sharp fall in Chinese imports has knock-on effects in other Asian countries. A working paper by IMF researchers from May 2016 shows that because China is deeply integrated into Asian value chains, changes in China’s global trade patterns are felt in other Asian countries as shocks through the trade channel. When China cuts imports of goods for investment, trade with countries supplying those goods, such as Korea and Taiwan, drops sharply.3


Reducing Reliance On External Global Trade


The decline in investment is a deliberate structural change in the Chinese economy. The investment boom is over, and with it the imports of goods for investment, upon which some Asian countries had relied. In addition, as part of its economic rebalancing China is reducing its reliance on imports of goods for investment in favour of domestically produced substitutes. These are long-term changes. Countries that mainly export goods for investment or intermediate goods to China will need to find alternative export markets, which will not be easy in the current time of weak global demand.


However, as Chinese households and corporations learn to spend more and save less, imports for consumption purposes (anything that doesn’t provide a return over time, such as food, healthcare, going to the movies) will rise. The IMF researchers say that countries such as New Zealand, which export consumption goods to China, will fare better in this global trade slowdown than countries such as Taiwan, which export mainly goods for investment.


China’s Global Trade Slowdown Is Not All About China


The IMF researchers estimate that about half the fall in Chinese global trade is due to rebalancing. The rest is due to weak global demand. This takes two forms. Firstly, many countries around the world are trying to reduce their imports and encourage exports, which in aggregate reduces global trade volumes: the EU, one of China’s biggest export markets, is now running a trade surplus (imports are less than exports).4 Secondly, China is facing increasing barriers to trade: both the U.S.5 and the EU6 recently imposed tariffs on Chinese steel exports, and there are calls for tariffs on other exports too.7 Chinese exports are simply not as welcome as they once were, and countries are becoming less tolerant of China’s tendency to cut prices in order to maintain exports.


The Currency Effect On Global Trade


China’s trade figures are also affected by the value of its currency. The renminbi is officially soft-pegged to a basket of currencies, but in practice it is still closely tied to the U.S. dollar. So despite two devaluations this year, the renminbi has strengthened along with the rising dollar8 until early November 2016, after which it has fallen relative to the dollar.9 The IMF estimates that about a quarter of the decline in exports is due to the strong renminbi during the period. There is also a negative effect on imports of goods for re-export, since the strong renminbi reduces the attractiveness of re-exports, especially when global demand is weak anyway.10



Part of China’s global trade slowdown is due to weak global demand for its exports, which in turn reduces China’s demand for imports as inputs to production. As the global economy recovers from the storms that have battered it since the financial crisis of 2008, China’s export demand may pick up, along with its imports, partly restoring the export performance of its principal suppliers.


However, as China’s economy rebalances away from fast investment and export-led growth towards slower growth led by domestic consumption, its imports of goods for investment and production will naturally decline, replaced by imports of consumption goods and services. Those countries that have come to rely on China’s demand for goods for investment and production may need in turn to diversify and rebalance their own economies.

Frances Coppola

The Author

Frances Coppola

With 17 years experience in the financial industry, Frances is a highly regarded writer and speaker on banking, finance and economics. She writes regularly for the Financial Times, Forbes and a range of financial industry publications. Her writing has featured in The Economist, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She is a frequent commentator on TV, radio and online news media including the BBC and RT TV.


1. "Global Trade Watch: Trade developments in 2015", World Bank; http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/913061468196142457/pdf/103903-REVISED-Global-trade-watch.pdf
2. "The People’s Republic of China", International Monetary Fund; https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2016/cr16270.pdf
3. "China and Asia in Global Trade Slowdown ",International Monetary Fund; https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2016/wp16105.pdf
4. "Euro area international trade in goods surplus €26.5 bn", Eurostat; http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2013/december/tradoc_151969.pdf
5. "U.S. hikes duties on Chinese steel to more than 500%", CNN Money;http://money.cnn.com/2016/05/18/news/us-steel-china-trade/
6. "EU Imposes Fresh Anti-Dumping Tariffs on Chinese Steel", The Wall Street Journal; http://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-imposes-fresh-anti-dumping-tariffs-on-chinese-steel-1469802897
7. "Trump targets China trade, says plans serious measures", Reuters; http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-china-idUSKCN10Z2JN
8. "Beneath Yuan’s Quiet, China Worries Rise", The Wall Street Journal; http://www.wsj.com/articles/beneath-yuans-quiet-china-worries-rise-1472404535
9. "China Struggles to Steady Yuan’s Decline",The Wall Street Journal; http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-struggles-to-steady-yuans-decline-1479989103
10. "The People’s Republic of China, International Monetary Fund;", Reuters; https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2016/cr16270.pdf



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