The Difference between Level of Trade and the Trade Balance

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 we called a trade deficit “attracting foreign financial capital”—which accurately describes what a trade deficit means—then trade deficits might look more attractive. Conversely, if we called a trade surplus “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.”

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 performing well or not. The Democratic Republic of the 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.