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10.6: The Difference between Level of Trade and the Trade Balance

A nation’s level of trade may at first sound like much the same issue as the balance of trade, but these two are actually quite separate. It is perfectly possible for a country to have a very high level of trade—measured by its exports of goods and services as a share of its GDP—while it also has a near-balance between exports and imports. A high level of trade indicates that a good portion of the nation’s production is exported. It is also possible for a country’s trade to be a relatively low share of GDP, relative to global averages, but for the imbalance between its exports and its imports to be quite large. This general theme was emphasized earlier in Measuring Trade Balances, which offered some illustrative figures on trade levels and balances.

A country’s level of trade tells how much of its production it exports. This is measured by the percent of exports out of GDP. It indicates how globalized an economy is. Some countries, such as Germany, have a high level of trade—they export almost 50% of their total production. The balance of trade tells us if the country is running a trade surplus or trade deficit. A country can have a low level of trade but a high trade deficit. (For example, the United States only exports 14% of GDP, but it has a trade deficit of $540 billion.)

Three factors strongly influence a nation’s level of trade: the size of its economy, its geographic location, and its history of trade. Large economies like the United States can do much of their trading internally, while small economies like Sweden have less ability to provide what they want internally and tend to have higher ratios of exports and imports to GDP. Nations that are neighbors tend to trade more, since costs of transportation and communication are lower. Moreover, some nations have long and established patterns of international trade, while others do not.

Consequently, a relatively small economy like Sweden, with many nearby trading partners across Europe and a long history of foreign trade, has a high level of trade. Brazil and India, which are fairly large economies that have often sought to inhibit trade in recent decades, have lower levels of trade. Whereas, the United States and Japan are extremely large economies that have comparatively few nearby trading partners. Both countries actually have quite low levels of trade by world standards. The ratio of exports to GDP in either the United States or in Japan is about half of the world average.

The balance of trade is a separate issue from the level of trade. The United States has a low level of trade, but had enormous trade deficits for most years from the mid-1980s into the 2000s. Japan has a low level of trade by world standards, but has typically shown large trade surpluses in recent decades. Nations like Germany and the United Kingdom have medium to high levels of trade by world standards, but Germany had a moderate trade surplus in 2008, while the United Kingdom had a moderate trade deficit. Their trade picture was roughly in balance in the late 1990s. Sweden had a high level of trade and a large trade surplus in 2007, while Mexico had a high level of trade and a moderate trade deficit that same year.

In short, it is quite possible for nations with a relatively low level of trade, expressed as a percentage of GDP, to have relatively large trade deficits. It is also quite possible for nations with a near balance between exports and imports to worry about the consequences of high levels of trade for the economy. It is not inconsistent to believe that a high level of trade is potentially beneficial to an economy, because of the way it allows nations to play to their comparative advantages, and to also be concerned about any macroeconomic instability caused by a long-term pattern of large trade deficits. The following Clear It Up feature discusses how this sort of dynamic played out in Colonial India.

Note: Are Trade Surpluses Always Beneficial? Considering Colonial India.

India was formally under British rule from 1858 to 1947. During that time, India consistently had trade surpluses with Great Britain. Anyone who believes that trade surpluses are a sign of economic strength and dominance while trade deficits are a sign of economic weakness must find this pattern odd, since it would mean that colonial India was successfully dominating and exploiting Great Britain for almost a century—which was not true.

Instead, India’s trade surpluses with Great Britain meant that each year there was an overall flow of financial capital from India to Great Britain. In India, this flow of financial capital was heavily criticized as the “drain,” and eliminating the drain of financial capital was viewed as one of the many reasons why India would benefit from achieving independence.

Final Thoughts about Trade Balances

Trade deficits can be a good or a bad sign for an economy, and trade surpluses can be a good or a bad sign. Even a trade balance of zero—which just means that a nation is neither a net borrower nor lender in the international economy—can be either a good or bad sign. The fundamental economic question is not whether a nation’s economy is borrowing or lending at all, but whether the particular borrowing or lending in the particular economic conditions of that country makes sense.

It is interesting to reflect on how public attitudes toward trade deficits and surpluses might change if we could somehow change the labels that people and the news media affix to them. If a trade deficit was called “attracting foreign financial capital”—which accurately describes what a trade deficit means—then trade deficits might look more attractive. Conversely, if a trade surplus were called “shipping financial capital abroad”—which accurately captures what a trade surplus does—then trade surpluses might look less attractive. Either way, the key to understanding trade balances is to understand the relationships between flows of trade and flows of international payments, and what these relationships imply about the causes, benefits, and risks of different kinds of trade balances. The first step along this journey of understanding is to move beyond knee-jerk reactions to terms like “trade surplus,” “trade balance,” and “trade deficit.”

Note: More than Meets the Eye in the Congo

Now that you see the big picture, you undoubtedly realize that all of the economic choices you make, such as depositing savings or investing in an international mutual fund, do influence the flow of goods and services as well as the flows of money around the world.

You now know that a trade surplus does not necessarily tell us whether an economy is doing well or not. The Democratic Republic of Congo ran a trade surplus in 2013, as we learned in the beginning of the chapter. Yet its current account balance was –$2.8 billion. However, the return of political stability and the rebuilding in the aftermath of the civil war there has meant a flow of investment and financial capital into the country. In this case, a negative current account balance means the country is being rebuilt—and that is a good thing.

Key Concepts and Summary

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.