Europe's sovereign debt crisis and other economic shocks are expected to slow the growth in global exports to just 3.7 per cent in 2012, the World Trade Organisation says.
That comes after a slowdown to 5 per cent in 2011 and 13.8 per cent in 2010, the global trade body said in its annual report on Thursday. The figures represent the total volume of merchandise exported across borders, accounting for changes in prices and exchange rates.
The forecasts are nevertheless uncertain due to potential volatility caused by the eurozone crisis, US debt concerns, economic aftershocks of the Japan earthquake and nuclear crisis, flooding in Thailand and the impact of continuing political unrest in the oil-rich Middle East. The estimates assume an oil price above $US100 a barrel.
"More than three years have passed since the trade collapse of 2008-09, but the world economy and trade remain fragile," WTO chief Pascal Lamy said.
"The further slowing of trade expected in 2012 shows that the downside risks remain high. We are not yet out of the woods."
The slowdown in 2012 would bring trade growth below the world average rate of 5.4 per cent over the last 20 years, the WTO said.
In 2013, the growth rate is expected to rise slightly again, to 5.6 per cent, the organisation forecast. This was the first time the WTO predicted a growth rate more than a year in advance.
In 2011, developed countries did a bit better than expected, while the United States became a net exporter of fuels in large part because of coal exports to Japan, WTO officials said.
The United States saw exports grow 7.2 per cent in 2011 after a rise of 15.4 per cent the year before. The European Union saw exports grow 5.2 per cent in 2011 after a rise of 11.5 per cent the year before.
Japan's exports contracted by 0.5 per cent, a sharp turnaround from its 27.5 per cent rise in exports the year before, which had made up for the sharp 24.9 per cent decline in 2009.
China, the world's biggest exporter, saw its growth in exports slow to 9.3 per cent in 2011 after a surge of 28.4 per cent the year before.
Measured in dollar terms, the total value of merchandise traded in 2011 was $18.2 trillion, a jump of 19 per cent and an all-time global record driven by rising prices for fuels and other commodities.
The WTO, however, bases it forecast for growth rates on the volume of merchandise, since prices are difficult to predict.
The 2010 rate of 13.8 per cent represented a slight downward revision to last year's reported figure of 14.5 per cent - the biggest rise recorded since 1950 - based on more recent and complete data showing how economies rebounded from the global downturn.