Maritime & Trade Blog

The Trade Numerologist: Trade in free Catalonia

Tensions over the future of Catalonia could expose how much the Spanish economy depends on its vibrant Northeastern region, and underscore how much a specific region can dominate a country’s trade with the rest of the world.

Spain has been a mess of protests, strikes and chaos since Catalonia’s parliament declared independence in October. The government of Catalan was forced out, a judge ordered lawmakers to be jailed, and a Spanish court voided the declaration as “unconstitutional”.

The situation is still volatile, but the prospect of a so-called Catalexit appeared to be more realistic after government leaders floated the notion of holding a referendum on changing its constitution to let provinces vote on independence. Foreign minister Alfonso Dastis said the decision to open that door would have to be “taken by all Spaniards.”

If all Spaniards vote with their wallets, they would be smart to deny Catalonia. (As well as Basque Country, another freedom-seeking region.) Spain, which has only been a democracy since 1975, has suffered from a debilitating debt crisis, but is still the world’s 17th biggest exporter. In 2016, it exported $277.7 billion of goods, roughly the same as $277 billion in 2015, according to IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas. And although Catalonia makes up only 16% of Spain’s population, its four provinces – Barcelona, Gerona, Lleida and Tarragona – constitute 25% of exports. Barcelona tops the charts.

Top Spanish exporters, by province, 2016

Barcelona $56 billion Pontevedra $10 billion
Madrid $30.9 billion Murcia $9.9 billion
Valencia $18.7 billion Navarra $9 billion
Zaragoza $10.7 billion Vizcaya $8.5 billion
La Coruna $10.4 billion Tarragona $7.9 billion


Spain is not unusual. Manufacturers with export contracts tend to cluster around a few regions with good infrastructure, and most countries depend heavily on these places to drive their relationship with the rest of the world. By comparison, the biggest exporter among US states is California, home to 12% of America’s people, but accounting for 19% of the $2.2 trillion in US exports in 2016. And that’s without fully measuring the value of Hollywood movies.

Top US exporters, by state, 2016

California $410.1 billion New Jersey $108.1 billion
Texas $229.3 billion Georgia $86.1 billion
Michigan $134.9 billion Pennsylvania $9 billion
New York $130.1 billion Tennessee $75.3 billion
Illinois $121.5 billion Florida $73.6 billion


Although Barcelona is famous for its Gaudi architecture, wine, and cured ham, it’s also the hub of a manufacturing dynamo, which makes everything from cars and TV equipment to chemicals and clothes. SEAT, a former state Spanish carmaker now owned by Volkswagen, is headquartered in Catalonia, and Nissan also has a big plant nearby. Spain is the world’s eighth largest car producer.

Top exports from Barcelona, 2016

Cars, trucks and parts $12.2 billion Chemicals $1.8 billion
Pharmaceuticals $4.4 billion Clothes $1.7 billion
Nuclear reactors and parts $3.9 billion Organic chemicals $1.7 billion
TV equipment $3.3 billion Perfumes, oils $1.5 billion
Plastics $3.1 billion Meat $1.5 billion


It remains unclear what will happen to all these plants and factories if Catalonia becomes its own trading economy. The region has its own language and customs, and if those are fully enshrined, marketing, selling and shipping to and from Catalonia could get more complicated and expensive.

A free Catalonia would not automatically be a member of the World Trade Organization, and would face the higher tariffs that existed prior to WTO treaties. Spain might impose sanctions. The region might have to negotiate a new free trade deal with the European Union. That would be problematic: Two-thirds of Catalan exports go to the EU.

As with Brexit, what happens next will indicate how badly political divisions are capable of damaging the post-World War Two trading regime of more open borders and lower tariffs.

To be sure, the roots of this crisis are already economic. Many Catalonians blame their central government for a debt crisis and the stagnation of the Spanish economy. After rising in the second half of last decade, Spanish exports have stagnated since 2011. 

Spanish exports, 2006-2016

2016 $290.4 billion 2010 $254.5 billion
2015 $282.4 billion 2009 $227.5 billion
2014 $324.6 billion 2008 $282.4 billion
2013 $317.8 billion 2007 $253.4 billion
2012 $295.6 billion 2006 $213.8 billion
2011 $306.6 billion


The consensus among Western banks, consultants and investors is that Catalan independence would be a disaster. ING economist Geoffrey Minne wrote that “as with Brexit, we believe that any Catalexit would plunge the region into a long period of uncertainty and would most probably be negative for the private sector.”

However, an independent Catalonia, if successful, could be a template for other regions in the EU, such as Flanders in Belgium, Scotland, or Lombardy in Italy, to declare their own independence.

There is one reason for investors to favor a strong Catalonian threat to secede: It could give the region more leverage in negotiating subsidies and support from the Spanish state.

What topic would you like the Trade Numerologist to cover? Email with comments and questions. 

The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit’s unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas database, the world’s most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

About The Author

John W. Miller is a global journalist with 18 years experience reporting from six continents and 45 countries, on print, digital, video and audio platforms. As a Brussels-based foreign correspondent, corporate and investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires and Time Magazine, and Pittsburgh-based global mining and metals correspondent for the Journal, he wrote over 60 stories for the Journal’s front page, and won awards from the National Press Foundation and the German Marshall Fund. 

Miller has covered elections around the world, the World Trade Organization, the ups and down of the European Union, economic and business trends, Fortune 500 corporations, mining and metal-making from Appalachia to Australia, the World Cup, and the Tour de France, and is an expert on global commodity trade, coal, copper and iron ore mining, the steel industry, US manufacturing, Chinese export policy, WTO and anti-dumping trade law, and EU politics. 

Miller is from Brussels, speaks fluent French, and holds US and Belgian passports.