The World Trade Organization says global trade grew at a better-than-expected rate last year, and could grow even faster this year.

The World Trade Organization says world trade rose 4.5 percent last year. While this is good, the WTO annual trade report says this rate still is below the average rate of 6.7 percent from 1990 to the present. But the World Trade Organization says the rebound after last year's SARS epidemic in Asia and tensions in the Middle East is impressive.

The report says improvements in U.S. and Asian economies have given an important boost to world trade and predicts world trade could increase by as much as 7.5 percent.

But chief WTO economist, Patrick Low, cautions some conditions must be met to achieve the above-average growth.

"One is clearly whether the U.S. will continue with its rather remarkable income and trade growth performance," said Mr. Low. "Another is whether Western European demand will stay up where it is now and feeding through then into trade growth as well. And, then a third factor which I think we have to recognize is what is going to happen to oil prices."

Mr. Low says the WTO prediction is based on the assumption that average oil prices will be lower this year than they were in 2003, when the price of a barrel of crude was about $29. Current oil prices are over $30 a barrel.

According to the report, Asia and the transition economies recorded the most dynamic trade performance. China's imports increased by 40 percent and exports expanded by 35 percent. As a consequence, the World Trade Organization says, China now is ranked as the fourth largest exporter in the world, after the United States, Japan, and Germany. And, China follows the United States and Germany as the third largest importer

The WTO says Latin America did well in export growth, but remained stagnant on the import side. It says Western Europe put in a sluggish performance and the developing countries, on average, chalked up decent growth.

The WTO says world exports of products rose by 16percent to $7.3 trillion. The export of services was up by 12 percent at $1.8 trillion in 2003. These are the highest annual export increases since 1995.