The influence of exports on a country's economic development has been the subject of study since the 1950s when the main debate revolved around whether it was foreign sales or import substitution that made a country's economy grow. With globalization, this relationship has taken on greater importance. The framework for the development of foreign trade changed completely, trade blocs made up of various countries were formed and barriers to exports and imports were reduced.
Currently, several theories attempt to explain the relationship between these two variables, a country's economic growth, and its exports. For the moment, it cannot be said that any one of them is true, and the rest are not. Most of the studies carried out to date claim that there is a strong positive correlation between the variables, but the same authors mention that they cannot yet accept this as true, since there are other real case studies that contradict this claim and give import most of the prominence.
In the case of Spain, the contribution of the foreign sector to GDP has been positive since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, due to the increase in exports and the fall in imports. Since 2009, Spanish exports, both of goods and services, have grown by 23.4%, a higher rate than the average for the European area. Their weight in GDP has also grown considerably, from 26% in the years prior to the onset of the crisis to 32.2% in 2012. This increase together with a sharp drop in imports, derived from a decline in domestic demand, has resulted in a significant contribution to Spanish GDP growth.
In 2016, the international trade records of the World Trade Organization (WTO) manifested the good moment the Spanish export sector was going through. At a time when the current value of world exports was contracting by around 6%, Spanish exports were experiencing growth of 2.3%. This growth continued until 2019 when the management of the health crisis caused by the pandemic led to a standstill in international activity. The world economy suffered a major recession that began in 2019 and worsened in 2020, and with it the foreign trade of most countries.
In 2021, foreign trade managed to rebound, and Spanish exports reached an all-time high, exceeding €316 billion and pre-pandemic levels. All sectors contributed positively to the increase in exports in 2021, but the most prominent were the chemicals, semi-manufacturing, energy products, and capital goods sectors. Export recovery has been most rapid within the European continent, but sales to third countries have also increased significantly. For example, trade with Latin America increased by 26.1% and with North America by 19.5%.
Another new all-time high also occurred in 2021, the export base grew by 7% to exceed 59,000 regular exporters. The Spanish export sector has shown that it has a solid and expanding base, with the number of regular exporters increasing by up to 60% in the last 10 years. Proof of this is that, despite the fall in international trade caused by the pandemic, companies have not only retained their client portfolio but have increased it.
As we explained at the beginning, we cannot say that exports alone will bring about a country's economic growth. But, as Xiana Méndez, Secretary of State for Trade, argues, in the case of Spain, the foreign sector is being an indisputable driving force for the country's economic recovery after the pandemic. The ratio of Spanish exports of goods and services to GDP increased by four percentage points in 2021, reaching 34.6%, recovering a weight similar to that of the years prior to the pandemic.