Source: WTO.
World's Largest Exporters and Importers, 2015
An overview of world's largest exporters and importers underlines that international trade reflects market size but is also characterized by acute imbalances:
  • Market size. The United States, Germany, China and Japan are the world's largest importers and consequently the world's largest economies. In recent years Germany overtook the traditional position of the world's largest exporter held by United States over the last 50 years. The integration of China to the global economy has been accompanied by a growing level of participation to trade both in absolute and relative terms, improving the rank of China from the 7th largest exporter in 2000, to the third largest in 2005 and finally to the largest in 2008, supplanting the United States and Germany. It is important to underline that the importance of countries such as the Netherlands, Hong Kong (a special administrative region of China). Belgium and Singapore is mainly attributed to re-exports since these countries act as major gateways to regional markets. For instance, more than 90% of Hong Kong's exports are re-exports from mainland China.
  • Trade imbalances. Some countries, notably the United States, the United Kingdom and France, have significant trade deficits which are reflected in their balance of payments. This aspect is dominantly linked with service and technology-oriented economies that have experienced a relocation of labor-intensive production activities to lower costs locations. They are highly dependent on the efficient distribution of goods and commodities. Conversely, countries having a positive trade balance tend to be export-oriented with a level of dependency on international markets either for merchandises or commodities. Germany, South Korea and China are among the most notable examples of countries dependent on merchandises exports (cars, electronics, apparel, etc.). China has a positive trade balance, but most of this surplus concerns the United States. It maintains a negative trade balance with many of its partners, especially resources providers (e.g. Australia). The Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia are examples of countries highly dependent of the exports of commodities, particularly petroleum, to maintain the sharp positive trade balance.
Historical evidence underlines that acute trade imbalances cannot be maintained indefinitely without an eventual readjustment. The surge in international trade, particularly after 2002, was linked with a phase of asset inflation (e.g. real estate bubble), particularly in the United States and several European countries (e.g. United Kingdom, Spain) coupled with heavy borrowing using these assets as collateral. A share of this debt was used for the purpose of consumption of imported goods, which turned to be unsustainable. This led to the financial crisis of 2008-09 and a substantial drop in global trade, which recovered afterwards, but at a lower growth rate. Over the coming years, global trade will be significantly readjusted to better reflect production and consumption capabilities.