Will COVID-19 reverse pre-pandemic fall in trade in ICT goods?

01 avril 2021
News

© Mykhalchuk Roman

Preliminary data for 2020 from three major economies shows the growing reliance on digital technologies could boost imports and exports of communications devices, which fell in 2019.

By accelerating digitalization, COVID-19 may boost trade in information and communications technologies (ICT), which had declined somewhat before the pandemic, according to the latest available UNCTAD figures, which cover 2019.

Global imports of ICT goods were just shy of $2.5 trillion in 2019, a 3% decline compared with 2018, according to the data.

But preliminary data for 2020 from Germany, Hong Kong (China) and the United States – three major economies from different regions – shows some signs of growth in trade in ICT goods despite the overall decline in global economic activities in the wake of the pandemic.

This reflects the growing reliance on digital technologies during lockdowns.

“The pandemic has had a major impact on digitalization, which may have resulted in significant growth in ICT goods trade despite the severe decline in economic activity last year,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD's director of technology and logistics.

Steep declines in least developed countries and Africa

According to the 2019 figures, most regions experienced declines in both imports and exports of ICT goods during that year, with the sharpest drops noted for least developed countries (LDCs) (Table 1).

The main exception was southern Asia (particulary India), where ICT goods exports surged by 68%, albeit from a low level.
 

Table 1: Global trade in ICT goods, 2018-2019, by development region
(million US$ at current prices)

 

2019
(US$ millions)

Change 2018-2019
(%)

Region/country group

Exports

Imports

Exports

Imports

World

2,161,221

2,472,850*

-3

-3

Developed economies

460,824

976,024

-2

-4

Transition economies

2,902

30,808

-9

-10

Developing economies

1,697,495

1,350,554

-3

-3

     Africa

3,005

19,939

-3

-13

     Latin America and the Caribbean

69,667

114,381

0

-1

     Asia and Oceania

1,624,823

1,216,237

-3

-4

         Eastern Asia

1,258,237

831,458

-4

-4

         Southern Asia

6,486

47,663

68

-7

         South-eastern Asia

357,805

277,139

0

-2

         Western Asia

8,094

67,739

-16

-1

Least developed countries

492

2,532

-48

-45

Note:  Values adjusted for re-imports and re-exports. * estimated value of global imports in 2019 to adjust for missing data.
Source: UNCTADStat.
 

Top 10 exporters

Exports of ICT goods are geographically highly concentrated, with eastern and south-eastern Asia (led by China) accounting for three-quarters of the total (Table 2).

Looking at the top 10 exporters of ICT goods, the sharpest decline was observed in the Republic of Korea (-17%), while Viet Nam reported the biggest increase (13%).

Other economies with ICT goods’ exports exceeding $850 million that showed high growth rates included India (+70%), the Philippines (+34%), Ireland (+33%), Egypt (+24%) and Australia (+16%). On the flip side, such exports were negatively affected notably in Israel (-19%), Estonia (-16%), Thailand (-15%) and Indonesia (-11%).

Data is available for 2020 for three of the main traders of ICT goods, which together account for about a quarter of global trade in such items.

For Hong Kong (China), exports of ICT goods rebounded by 5% in 2020 as the demand for such products increased during the pandemic. By contrast, exports continued to decline in both Germany and the United States (Table 2).
 

Table 2: Exports of ICT goods for top 10 exporters in 2019, 2018-2020
(million US$ at current prices and percent)

Economy

2020*

Change 2019-2020
(%)

2019

Change 2018-2019

(%)

Global market share 2019
(%)

China

-

-

662,177

-3

31

Hong Kong SAR China

319,619

5

303,454

-4

14

Taiwan Province of China

-

-

152,878

7

7

United States of America

138,375

-4

143,744

-3

7

Republic of Korea

-

-

139,727

-17

6

Singapore

-

-

114,361

-6

5

Viet Nam

-

-

92,642

13

4

Malaysia

-

-

77,382

-6

4

Germany

70,960

-3

73,181

-6

3

Mexico

-

-

68,302

1

3

Note: *2020 available only for a few countries. Values not adjusted for re-exports (many missing values).
Source: UNCTADStat.
 

Top 10 importers

In 2019, eastern and south-eastern Asia together accounted for 47% of global imports of ICT goods, and developed economies for another 41%.

Imports fell in all the top six importers (Table 3). By contrast, they increased significantly in some developed countries, such as Belgium (+17%), Ireland (+14%) and Hungary (+10%).

A similar trend was noted in certain developing countries with imports above $850 million, including in Nigeria (+33%), Paraguay (+21%), Viet Nam (+15%) and Saudi Arabia (+13%).

For others, imports declined sharply, notably in Ecuador (-33%), Argentina (-20%), Macao SAR China (-16%), Thailand (-15%), Chile (-11%) and Malaysia (-9%).

In both the United States and Hong Kong (China), imports of ICT goods increased by 5% in 2020 and stayed flat in Germany (Table 3).
 

Table 3: Imports of ICT goods for top 10 exporters in 2019, 2018-2020
(million US$ at current prices and percent)

Economy

2020*

Change 2019-2020

(%)

2019

Change 2018-2019

(%)

Global market share 2019

(%)

China

-

-

465,198

-4

20

United States of America

347,415

5

331,960

-7

14

Hong Kong SAR China

325,552

5

310,536

-8

13

Germany

103,334

0

103,743

-6

4

Singapore

-

-

96,471

-2

4

Japan

-

-

88,272

-1

4

Republic of Korea

-

-

79,844

7

3

Taiwan Province of China

-

-

75,517

6

3

Mexico

-

-

72,074

2

3

Netherlands

-

-

69,703

1

3

Note: *2020 available only for a few countries. Values not adjusted for re-imports (many missing values).
Source: UNCTADStat.
 

Electronic components dominate ICT goods trade

The figures show that electronic components continue to represent the lion’s share of trade in ICT goods, making up just over 40% of global imports.

They are an essential component of ICT goods and bear out Moore’s law – that computer chips will dramatically increase in power and decrease in relative cost.

Electronic components have been driving the fast pace of technological innovation in the sector, and thus, not surprisingly, their world imports declined by only 1%.

The decline in 2019 affected all the five subcategories of ICT goods, with the most significant drop noted for communication equipment (-6%) (Figure 1).

If these trends are sustained, global imports of computers and peripheral equipment may have well equalled or overtaken those of communication equipment in 2020.

A preliminary assessment of 2020 data from Germany, Hong Kong (China) and the United States suggests that this may well be the case (Table 4).

Imports of communication equipment into these three economies fell by 4% in 2020, while imports of computers and peripheral equipment grew by 10%.
 

Figure 1: Global imports of ICT goods, 2000-2019, by main product group
(billion US$ at current prices)

Figure 1
Source: UNCTAD

 

Table 4. Change in imports of ICT goods into Germany, Hong Kong (China) and the United States
(by main product category, 2019 and 2020, percent)

Product category

2019

2020

Computers and peripheral equipment

-9

10

Communication equipment

-8

-4

Consumer electronic equipment

-6

1

Electronic components

-4

6

Miscellaneous

-10

14

Note: Values not adjusted for re-imports (many missing values)
Source: UNCTAD, based on data from UN COMTRADE.