GENEVA — Heavily influenced by the slump in demand in the European Union, global trade volume is forecast to grow 3.3 percent this year, representing a marked cut from an earlier projection made in September of a 4.5 percent increase, the World Trade Organization said Wednesday.

Exports of industrialized countries are estimated to increase 1.4 percent, while those of developing countries are forecast to expand 5.3 percent. On the import side, the WTO projects 1.4 percent growth in the volume of shipments destined for rich nations and a 5.9 percent expansion for developing economies.

In 2012, the volume of world merchandise trade grew by just 2 percent, down from 5.2 percent registered in 2011, and represented the smallest annual increase since 1981, the WTO said. Last year, the volume of U.S. merchandise exports grew 4.1 percent, the EU’s just 0.3 percent, and China’s by 6.2 percent, while on the import front, shipments destined for the U.S. grew 2.8 percent, fell 2 percent to the EU, and gained 3.6 percent for China.


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Pascal Lamy, WTO director-general, said the deceleration in trade growth last year “was stronger than anticipated,” and for this year, “trade will remain subdued.” He said although the agency foresees slightly faster growth for 2013, it will still come in below the 20-year average (1992-2012) of 5.3 percent. For 2014, the WTO expects world trade volume to expand 5 percent, he said.

But the WTO’s “World Trade 2012, Prospects for 2013” report cautions that the outlook for global commerce in 2013 and 2014 “looks unsettled,” and notes that the current forecast “could be derailed if certain downside risks materialize.” These include revived financial market turbulence related to the euro crisis, spikes in commodity prices, geopolitical tensions and rising protectionism.

“As long as global economic weakness persists, protectionist pressure will build and could eventually become overwhelming,” Lamy warned.

In 2012, WTO economists estimate the value of world merchandise trade “increased by only two-tenths of 1 percent to $18.3 trillion,” and noted that the slower growth in the value compared to volume “is explained by falling prices for traded goods.”

Last year, the value of world trade in apparel, the WTO said, declined 4.2 percent to $371.3 billion, and for textiles was down 5.6 percent to $208.9 billion. But some of the biggest price declines were recorded for commodities such as cotton, down 42 percent; iron ore, off 23 percent, and coffee, down 22 percent.

In 2012, the world’s top exporter, China, posted an 8 percent increase in exports to $2.04 trillion, followed by the U.S. with a 5 percent gain to $1.54 trillion, while third-placed Germany, with $1.4 trillion in exports, posted a 5 percent decline. India reported a 3 percent decline in its shipments to $293 billion and Brazil a 5 percent drop to $243 billion.

Last year, the U.S. remained the world’s top importer with a 3 percent increase in the value of shipments to $2.33 trillion, followed by China with a 4 percent gain to $1.81 trillion, and Germany, with a 7 percent drop to $1.16 trillion.