Growth in global commerce slowed for the third consecutive year in 1991, making a successful conclusion to the long-running round of world trade talks even more important, according to a report of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
"Success in the current trade negotiations would . . . make a tangible contribution to an improved economic outlook for the world economy," said Arthur Dunkel, GATT's director-general.
Dunkel said there was a short-term "need to promote a strong recovery after three years of declining growth rates" and a long-term need to ensure smooth economic relations between countries as trade competition becomes more fierce.
He added that incomplete data for the second half of 1991 suggested that the decline in the growth rate may have bottomed out and that a modest recovery might be under way.
The Dunkel report, presented to the ruling GATT Council, estimated the growth in world trade at 3% in 1991, smallest since 1983.
GATT launched the Uruguay Round of trade talks in 1986 in an ambitious effort to free up trade. The idea was to bring whole new areas, including farm subsidies and trade in services, under GATT controls. Despite long delays, Dunkel said it is urgent to conclude now.
"Once again, we have a clear window of opportunity to do so in the weeks ahead," he said. "Whether we grasp this opportunity or allow it to slip away is a decision that all your governments will be required to take collectively very soon."
In addition to the problems facing merchandise trade, growth in the trade in services, from tourism to banking, rose 5% to $850 billion last year after 17% growth in 1990.
The current slowdown in the world economy differs from the recessions of 1975 and 1982, Dunkel said, in that there is no agreement this time on the causes.
The implication is that the solution to this recession is not immediately obvious, and the role of trade is thus more valuable, he said.
The report showed that the United States regained the world lead in exports from Germany, partly because of the appreciation of the dollar but also because of a lower volume of German exports.