The first three months of 2021 have seen global trade stage a dramatic comeback, surpassing 2019 levels, according to the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development’s (Unctad’s) May Global Trade Update.

“Global trade has recorded a faster recovery from the recession caused by the pandemic than in the past two trade recessions,” said Unctad economist Alessandro Nicita in a statement.


This is the latest evidence that the global economy and cross-border flows may be turning a corner more quickly than initial forecasts suggested.  

Over the first quarter of 2021, trade in goods and services was 3% higher than the last quarter of 2019, just before China imposed the world’s first lockdown on Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

This represents a 10% increase year-over-year, higher than the 7.2% growth for 2021 forecast by the World Trade Association last October. 

Unctad notes that the five-quarter rebound significantly outpaces the recoveries following previous trade slumps. It took ten quarters — twice as long — for volumes to bounce back after the 2009 global financial crisis, and 12 quarters for the bounce back after the commodities crash of 2015.

Unctad report figure
Source: UN Global Trade Update, May 2021

Driving recovery

Exports from east Asia were the biggest drivers of the recovery, with China volumes up 25% on pre-crisis levels. It was outdone by South Africa, which posted a 31% increase on its 2019 average. Excluding east Asia, however, developed countries fared better than their emerging peers. 

Key sectors include pharmaceuticals and other Covid-19-related goods, such as communications equipment, but also the likes of minerals and agrifood. Services, which represent 20–25% in global trade, remained stubbornly low and are expected to recover at less than half the rate of goods trade throughout the rest of the year.

Unctad expects global trade in the second quarter to continue its 3% increase on pre-pandemic levels, forecasting $6.6tn in volumes from April to June.