The data appear to provide further evidence that global economic activity is slowing, as growth in emerging markets has failed to compensate for weaker demand in the US.
The last time annual growth in trade went negative was in 2001, when the shallow US recession that followed the bursting of the technology bubble and the shock of the September 11 attacks caused global commerce to contract.
Trade growth is consistently higher on average than overall economic growth but it also tends to be more variable, dropping sharply during recessions.
Julian Jessop, chief international economist at the consultancy Capital Economics, said there were one-off factors that might explain the weakness in world trade in recent months, including disruptions to shipping and damage to Chinese trade caused by the winter storms.
However, he added: “Global trade growth tends to do twice whatever global GDP [gross domestic product] is doing, so with the world economy slowing it doesn’t surprise me at all that there is a slowdown in trade.”
The indicator – which is monitored by economists at the International Monetary Fund and other official bodies – is compiled from official data that are
published by both industrialised and emerging market countries. It covers more than 97 per cent of trade in goods, which itself constitutes more than 80 per cent of total world trade.
The institute said that imports into both the US and European Union fell in the three months to January.
Year-on-year trade growth hit a record high of 9.7 per cent in November 2006, at a time when the US and Chinese economies were both growing briskly.