Foreign Trade Statistics: A Basic Market Research Tool

By Kirchbach, Friedrich von | International Trade Forum, July-September 1991 | Go to article overview

Foreign Trade Statistics: A Basic Market Research Tool


Kirchbach, Friedrich von, International Trade Forum


Foreign trade statistics at the detailed product level play a fundamental role in any market research exercise, whether it is carried out by an individual export firm or a trade promotion organization. Although trade statistics are one of the basic tools for a market researcher, they are not always easy to use, as they are produced in many different forms, have varying coverage and require specific skills for interpretation. The rapid development of new computerized techniques and other means for storing and accessing trade statistics further complicates the choice of the most suitable source. Using such data effectively therefore requires an understanding of how the statistics are prepared, the information that they contain, the sources from which they are available and the forms in which they can be obtained.

How compiled

Trade statistics are a byproduct of customs procedures. They are prepared from customs declarations filled in by exporters and importers and verified by customs authorities. The customs department transfers the data to the statistics department, which sorts the information according to product, country and time period.

In many countries the ministry of trade has established a direct link to the customs. Trade officials therefore obtain the raw data at the same time as the statistics office. This has considerably reduced the time lag in the availability of the statistics. Furthermore, it has enabled the government to monitor trade at a more detailed ("disaggregated") level.

Standard format

The types of information covered by foreign trade statistics reflect the data collected through the customs forms. Many countries use a standard format for customs declarations, the UN Layout Key for Trade Documents. Standardization reduces the costs of processing the information and is essential for electronic data interchange (see article on page 10).

The following seven types of information are generally obtained from each customs declaration, which then are used to prepare the trade statistics broken down by product and country:

* Date of the transaction.

* Type of transaction (export or import).

* Commodity code.

* Country code.

* Value.

* Unit of measurement.

* Quantity.

When the customs department is computerized other types of data may also be available in the database with the primary foreign trade data:

* Local exporting or importing company and the person making the declaration.

* Foreign importer or exporter.

* Mode of transport.

* Gross and net weight of the goods.

* Number and kind of packages.

* Customs office.

* Currency of transaction.

* Customs regime.

* Terms of delivery and payment.

Many of these details can be useful for market researchers involved in their country's trade promotion activities. Although this additional information is not in general contained in the published versions of the national trade statistics, it can in some cases be obtained from the customs, statistics or trade departments.

Product nomenclatures

The more detailed the breakdown in product nomenclatures, the more useful the statistics are for market research. Detailed figures are especially important for analyzing changes in demand patterns and in average export and import values.

The tariff nomenclature most frequently used by governments to record their foreign trade transactions is the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System, or Harmonized System (HS), which has replaced the Brussels Tariff Nomenclature (BTN) and the Customs Cooperation Council Nomenclature (CCCN). The Harmonized System was developed by the Customs Cooperation Council (CCC) in Brussels in line with the requirements of customs procedures. To a large extent it classifies products by the materials used to produce them. …

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