23.1 Measuring Trade Balances
The trade balance measures the gap between a country’s exports and its imports. In most high-income economies, goods make up less than half of a country’s total production, while services compose more than half. The last two decades have seen a surge in international trade in services; however, most global trade still takes the form of goods rather than services. The current account balance includes the trade in goods, services, and money flowing into and out of a country from investments and unilateral transfers.
23.2 Trade Balances in Historical and International Context
The United States developed large trade surpluses in the early 1980s, swung back to a tiny trade surplus in 1991, and then had even larger trade deficits in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As we will see below, a trade deficit necessarily means a net inflow of financial capital from abroad, while a trade surplus necessarily means a net outflow of financial capital from an economy to other countries.
23.3 Trade Balances and Flows of Financial Capital
International flows of goods and services are closely connected to the international flows of financial capital. A current account deficit means that, after taking all the flows of payments from goods, services, and income together, the country is a net borrower from the rest of the world. A current account surplus is the opposite and means the country is a net lender to the rest of the world.
23.4 The National Saving and Investment Identity
The national saving and investment identity is based on the relationship that the total quantity of financial capital supplied from all sources must equal the total quantity of financial capital demanded from all sources. If S is private saving, T is taxes, G is government spending, M is imports, X is exports, and I is investment, then for an economy with a current account deficit and a budget deficit:
A recession tends to increase the trade balance (meaning a higher trade surplus or lower trade deficit), while economic boom will tend to decrease the trade balance (meaning a lower trade surplus or a larger trade deficit).
23.5 The Pros and Cons of Trade Deficits and Surpluses
Trade surpluses are no guarantee of economic health, and trade deficits are no guarantee of economic weakness. Either trade deficits or trade surpluses can work out well or poorly, depending on whether the corresponding flows of financial capital are wisely invested.
23.6 The Difference between Level of Trade and the Trade Balance
There is a difference between the level of a country’s trade and the balance of trade. The level of trade is measured by the percentage of exports out of GDP, or the size of the economy. Small economies that have nearby trading partners and a history of international trade will tend to have higher levels of trade. Larger economies with few nearby trading partners and a limited history of international trade will tend to have lower levels of trade. The level of trade is different from the trade balance. The level of trade depends on a country’s history of trade, its geography, and the size of its economy. A country’s balance of trade is the dollar difference between its exports and imports.
Trade deficits and trade surpluses are not necessarily good or bad—it depends on the circumstances. Even if a country is borrowing, if that money is invested in productivity-boosting investments it can lead to an improvement in long-term economic growth.