Trade Finance Research Papers

As an institution geared towards the balanced expansion of world trade, the WTO is in the business of making trade possible. Its various functions include reducing trade barriers, negotiating and implementing global trade rules, and settling disputes on the basis of the rule of law. The WTO is also interested in strengthening the “supply-side” of developing countries so that they can respond to new market opportunities. To this end, it supports various initiatives aimed at improving the “trade infrastructures” of developing countries, ranging from the ability to meet international product, safety and sanitary standards, to run efficient customs, or to participate effectively to the multilateral trade negotiations by training public servants. The WTO carries out various initiatives with other partners (public and private sector institutions), in the context of its own technical assistance program, or in the context of multi-agency projects such as the Integrated Framework or the Aid-for-Trade Initiative.

Since more than 90% of trade transactions involve some form of credit, insurance or guarantee, one can reasonably say that trade finance is the lifeline of trade. Producers and traders in developing or least-developed countries need to have access to affordable flows of trade financing and insurance to be able to import and export, and hence integrate in world trade. From that perspective, an efficient financial system is one indispensable infrastructure to allow trade to happen. In line with the above initiatives, the WTO has been following actively, and at times, directly supporting, initiatives to boost the availability of trade finance in developing and least-developed countries wherever it was needed. Since the WTO is not a financial institution, it has been supporting in the past few years partners engaged in this effort such as international financial institutions, export credit agencies, large banks and regional development banks.

Initially, the WTO has been asked by its members at several points in recent years to examine the issue of availability of trade financing – as a key infrastructure needed by developing and least-developed countries to integrate in world trade. Paragraph 36 of the Ministerial Declaration of Doha requested WTO Members to examine, and if necessary come up with recommendations, on measures that the WTO could take, within its remit, to minimize the consequences of financial instabilities on their trade opportunities. In the context of the newly created Working Group on Trade, Debt and Finance (WGTDF), the interruptions of the flows of trade finance in emerging markets during the Asian and Latin American financial crises were quickly identified as concerns by Members, as well as the chronic difficulties of low income Members to secure more affordable flows of trade financing in the long-run. These concerns were channelled to the WTO Ministerial Meetings in Cancun (2003) and Hong-Kong (2005). During this period of examination, the Heads of the IMF, World Bank and the WTO agreed at the General Council Meeting on Coherence of 2002 to form an expert group including all interested parties, multilateral and regional public institutions, export credit agencies, private banks to examine what went wrong in this segment of financial markets, and how to create an enabling environment in local markets to provide adequate flows of trade finance on a on-going basis.

In chairing one of these meetings, the Director-General of the WTO defined the role of the WTO in this area: encouraging liberalization of this type of financial services under the financial services agreement, being a regulator of export credit and guarantee subsidies under the ASCM, and serving as a forum to discuss WTO-compatible ways of providing support to developing countries. Conclusions by the Working Group were presented at the WGTDF, and later at the General Council. WTO Secretariat work on this topic up to 2003, in particular its contribution to the WGTDF and to the expert group, was summarized in WTO Discussion Paper 2.

While the liquidity in financial markets improved from 2002 until the recent turmoil created by the crisis of the sub-prime mortgage markets, trade finance remained an issue for concern for WTO Members, in particular the poorest, which do not have access to international financial markets or for emerging markets which remain prone to changes in market sentiment, and hence credit rating. Despite the rapid development of “trade finance facilitation” schemes developed by regional development banks and the IFC, with immediate success in low income countries, the issue of availability of trade finance came back among other “supply-side” constraints identified by the Aid-for-Trade Task Force, after the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Hong-Kong. While the mandate of the WTO under the Aid-for-Trade is essentially one of evaluation and monitoring, it may be in cases one of advocacy. Based on the work being carried out since 2002, and after consultation with partners (regional development banks, multilateral institutions, export credit institutions,...), input by the WTO Secretariat to boost the availability of trade finance for developing countries under the Aid-for-Trade umbrella was welcomed by Members. Lack of trade financing and guarantee infrastructures were identified as one of the barriers to integration of low income countries in world trade by each of the three regional Aid-for-Trade Reviews. It was acknowledged that the current Aid-for-Trade Initiative could provide the extra leverage to convince WTO partners to deliver more plentiful of trade credit and guarantees to WTO members that need it the most.

This paper provides background on the difficulties of some countries and traders to access affordable trade credit and finance, on the growing divide between these low income countries and economically advanced countries in handling modern trade finance instruments, and on the joint reflection undertaken by the WTO, most recently under the Aid-for-Trade programme, and previously under the umbrella of the WGTDF and the Coherence Mandate, to help strengthen developing countries' capacities in this area.

No: ERSD-2007-04

Marc Auboin — WTO

Manuscript date: November 2007

Key Words:

Trade financing, cooperation with international financial institutions, aid-for-trade, coherence

JEL classification numbers:

E44, F13, F34, F36, O19


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This is a working paper, and hence it represents research in progress. This paper represents the opinions of the author, and is the product of professional research. It is not meant to represent the position or opinions of the WTO or its Members, nor the official position of any staff members. Any errors are the fault of the author. Copies of working papers can be requested from the divisional secretariat by writing to: Economic Research and Statistics Division, World Trade Organization, Rue de Lausanne 154, CH 1211 Geneva 21, Switzerland. Please request papers by number and title.

Download paper in pdf format (22 pages, 105KB)

This report - prepared by a Working Group chaired by John Clark (Federal Reserve Bank of New York) - examines the structure and recent evolution of the global trade finance market, and the interplay between changes in trade finance and international trade. In particular, it reviews the available data sources and what they reveal about the size and evolution of the market, sheds light on the performance and impact of trade finance during recent episodes of funding strains in global markets, and examines how ongoing structural changes may affect the market's future resilience.

In terms of financial stability risks, it concludes that losses on trade finance portfolios historically have been low. Moreover, given their short-term nature, banks have been able to quickly reduce their exposures in times of stress. However, this latter feature also introduces the possibility for trade finance to act as a conduit of stress from the financial system to the real economy, when banks run down trade finance books in response to funding and liquidity strains. As a result, policies that broadly address banking system capital and liquidity vulnerabilities and encourage vibrant competition are found to generally provide an effective means for avoiding or containing disruptions to trade finance flows - current regulatory efforts clearly work in this direction.

JEL Classification: F10, F34, G21

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