The scale of new trade restrictions implemented by members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has reached a historically high level, adding to the uncertainty surrounding international trade and the world economy.

Trade coverage of import-restrictive measures implemented by WTO members between mid-October 2018 and mid-May 2019 is estimated at US$339.5bn. The figure is the second-highest on record after the $588.3bn reported in the previous period.

Together, the numbers represent a dramatic spike in the trade coverage of import-restrictive measures and have prompted WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo to urge WTO members to work together to help scale back the situation. 

"These actions have real economic effects, and the alarm bells are already sounding"

"The overall picture is concerning. The report [on Trade-Related Developments] provides evidence that trade tensions continue to dominate the global trade environment.

"The message of the report before us is very serious. These actions have real economic effects, and the alarm bells are already sounding. It is essential that we tackle the tensions that are leading to higher trade barriers, greater uncertainty and lower trade growth. Exercises like this can only help in those efforts."

The report, presented at a meeting last week of the WTO's Trade Policy Review Body, shows G20 economies account for the overwhelming share of the trade coverage of import-restrictive measures during the review period.

It also provides evidence that this turbulence is continuing after the previous period (between mid-October 2017 and mid-October 2018) saw a record level of new restrictive measures introduced. Most of these measures remain in place and have now been added to by a series of new measures in the current period which are also at a historically high level.

In terms of numbers, WTO members applied 38 new trade-restrictive measures from mid-October 2018 to mid-May 2019 mainly through tariff increases, import bans, special safeguards, import taxes and export duties. The trade coverage of import-restrictive measures is estimated at $339.5bn – 44% above the average since October 2012.

The report also notes that several significant trade-restrictive measures either will be implemented shortly after the period covered or remain under consultation for potential later implementation, suggesting that the precarious situation in global trade will persist.

WTO members also implemented 47 new measures aimed at facilitating trade during the review period, including eliminating or reducing import tariffs, eliminating or simplifying customs procedures for exports and reducing import taxes. At almost seven new trade-facilitating measures per month, this is the lowest monthly average registered since 2012. The trade coverage of the import-facilitating measures implemented during the review period was estimated at US$398.2bn.

During the review period, and for the first time since 2012, the number of terminations of trade remedy investigations by WTO members outpaced the number of initiations of trade remedy actions. Sixteen trade remedy terminations per month and 14 trade remedy initiations were recorded, with the latter being the lowest monthly average registered since 2012. Initiations of anti-dumping investigations continued to be the most frequent trade remedy action, accounting for three-quarters of all initiations.