A country’s balance of trade is the difference in value between its exports and imports over a defined period. A balance of trade is also referred to as a trade balance.
A country’s balance of trade equals the value of its exports minus its imports. A country has a trade surplus when its balance is positive because its exports exceed its imports. A country has a trade deficit when its trade balance is negative. In this case, imports exceed exports.
The United States has had a trade deficit since 1975 when its reliance on foreign oil and rising oil prices contributed to the increased value of imports. The US has had a trade surplus for services every year since 1971, but the trade deficit for goods far exceeds the surplus for services. The graph illustrates the United States’ balance of trade between 1960 and 2021.
When one economy expands faster than its trading partners, the demand for goods and services provided by the trading partners will increase more than the demand for the economy. For example, the deficit ballooned between 2004 and 2008 because the US economy grew faster than most other global countries. Economic growth in the US increased the demand for imported goods relative to other countries, explaining the larger trade imbalance during this period.
The Chinese government has manipulated the yuan’s exchange rate to encourage exports. If the yuan had appreciated relative to the dollar, Chinese goods would have been more expensive for Americans to purchase. Furthermore, US goods would have been cheaper for Chinese consumers and producers.
A severe recession in Asian countries (most notably Japan) sent their currencies tumbling, which caused the price of their goods to fall relative to the price of US goods. US imports from Asian countries increased, and US exports fell, thereby increasing the deficit in the US. Countries devalue their currencies during steep recessions to encourage exports and discourage imports in extreme cases.
Recessionary periods benefit from surpluses because the added exports create jobs and boost GDP. During business expansions, a trade deficit can be beneficial by reducing inflationary pressures because the imports add competition. Factors that influence the trade balance include currency exchange rates, differing comparative advantages, and trade barriers imposed by governments. As mentioned above, when a currency loses its value, that country’s goods and services become less expensive in other countries, so exports should increase. Differing comparative advantages also influence trade. A country has a comparative advantage when the opportunity cost to produce a good or service is lower than another country. Perhaps one country has easy access to a vital raw material, or another country has a highly educated workforce. Comparative advantages make trading beneficial for both countries by enabling countries to specialize in producing the goods and services where they are the most efficient. Finally, government-imposed trade barriers, like tariffs and quotas, influence the balance of trade. Negotiated trade agreements also affect a country’s balance of trade.
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