International trade statistics: trends in first quarter 2021


G20 merchandise trade reaches record high in first quarter of 2021 while trade in services growth appears to moderate

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25 May 2021

G20 merchandise trade reaches record high in first quarter of 2021

Continuing the recovery initiated in the third of quarter of 2020, international merchandise trade for the G20 reached record levels in Q1 2021, as measured in seasonally adjusted current US dollars. Compared with the previous quarter, exports and imports increased by 8.0% and 8.1%, respectively.

With the exception of the United Kingdom, all G20 economies recorded positive growth in Q1 2021, with the depreciation of the US dollar and the related increases in commodity prices playing a role in the recovery from the COVID‑19 lows.

Prices of agricultural commodities, including cereals and vegetable oils, increased by over 10% in Q1 2021, while prices of metals are close to levels last observed in 2011. Argentina (exports up 33.3%), Australia (exports up 17.5%), Brazil (exports up 14.7%), and South Africa (exports up 17.3%), among the G20’s largest exporters of those products, have benefitted from the rising commodity prices.

Additionally, the nearly 35% increase in crude oil prices in Q1 2021 translated into the rising export values of Canada (up 10.8%), Russia (up 13.1%), and Indonesia (up 12.4%). Since energy products are a major import for most G20 economies, the price increases also resulted in higher import values in the same period.

Finally, the pandemic-related boom in purchases of electronics led to a surge in demand for semiconductors and integrated circuits. Along with several other factors, this led to supply failing to keep pace with demand, resulting in shortages and price rises. While higher trade in semiconductors partly contributed to total merchandise trade growth in the United States (exports and imports up by 5.7% and 5.3%, respectively), chip shortages affected, in particular, the automotive supply chains. A slowdown in shipments of vehicles and parts weighed on total merchandise exports from France (up 2.7%) and Mexico (up 0.4%), both markedly below the G20 average.

China, the G20’s largest merchandise trader, saw exports (up 18.9%) and imports (up 19.0%) soar in the first quarter of 2021. Chinese import growth was led by metals and metal ores, cereals and integrated circuits, while export growth was led by electronic products including integrated circuits, vehicles, and textiles (including face masks). In the European Union exports and imports grew by 3.8% and 5.0%, respectively.

The United Kingdom was the only G20 economy to record negative merchandise trade growth, both for exports (minus 5.7%) and for imports (minus 10.5%) in Q1 2021. The slowdown follows large increases in the previous quarter, when stockpiling was taking place in view of the exit from the EU Single Market.

G20 merchandise trade

Based on figures in current prices (billion US dollars), seasonally adjusted


Visit the interactive OECD Data Portal to explore these data further 

Source: OECD Statistics and Data Directorate 


Growth in trade in services appears to moderate in the first quarter of 2021

Based on preliminary information available for some G20 economies, services export and import growth for the G20 aggregate is estimated at around 4.4% and 2.5% for Q1 2021, respectively, measured in seasonally adjusted current US dollars. This follows the faster growth in exports (up 9.7%) and imports (up 7.1%) experienced by the G20 in the preceding quarter.

According to available data, trade in services in Q1 2021 broadly reflects the trends observed in late 2020. While travel continued to be heavily restrained, the value of trade in transport services soared in Q1, reflecting the surge in both maritime and air freight rates which began in the second half of 2020. Trade in digitally deliverable services, such as telecommunications, computer and business services, continued to expand in Q1 2021, particularly in East Asia. Widespread increases in savings and higher volumes of transactions in financial products contributed to robust trade in financial and insurance services, especially in Europe and North America.

In Q1 2021, exports of services increased by 4.0% in Germany and 3.6% in France, with financial and insurance services, as well as transport, driving the overall increase. Imports increased by 3.6% in Germany and 6.6% in France. In the United Kingdom, exports increased moderately in Q1 (up 1.3%), while imports decreased by 3.3%.

Services trade in North America recorded a slowdown in Q1 2021 compared with the previous quarter. Exports from the United States and Canada grew by 1.0% and 1.6%, respectively, while imports showed slightly higher growth (up 2.4% and 3.0%, respectively).

Services exports from Korea (up 3.3%) and China (up 22.7%) continued to record solid growth in Q1 2021, following robust expansions in Q4 2020. Imports also increased in China (by 3.9%), with telecommunications and computer and business services continuing their expanding trend which began in Q3 2020. Conversely, Korean imports declined (minus 2.4%).

In Q1 2021, exports of services from Australia and Japan contracted by (minus) 1.3% and (minus) 0.1%, respectively, partially owing to weak exports of travel. On the other hand, imports increased by 7.9% and 3.0%, in both cases driven by higher purchases of freight transport services.  

Exports of services from Brazil, Turkey and Russia recorded double-digit growth in Q4 2020 and continued to expand markedly in Q1 2021 (up by 9.1%, 13.1% and 6.0%, respectively).

G20 trade in services

Based on figures in current prices (billion US dollars), seasonally adjusted

Visit the interactive OECD Data Portal to explore these data further 

Source: OECD Statistics and Data Directorate and national sources. 

Note: The Q1 2021 trade in services values are preliminary estimates based on available data, covering about 60% of exports and imports for the G20 aggregate. 



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