Balance of Trade Concerns

In the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, low- and middle-income countries often viewed openness to global flows of goods, services, and financial capital in a negative light. These countries feared that foreign trade would mean both economic losses as high-income trading partners "exploited" their economy and they lost domestic political control to powerful business interests and multinational corporations.

These negative feelings about international trade have evolved. After all, the great economic success stories of recent years like Japan, the East Asian Tiger economies, China, and India, all took advantage of opportunities to sell in global markets. European economies thrive with high levels of trade. In the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States, Canada, and Mexico pledged themselves to reduce trade barriers. Many countries have clearly learned that reducing barriers to trade is at least potentially beneficial to the economy. Many smaller world economies have learned an even tougher lesson: if they do not participate actively in world trade, they are unlikely to join the success stories among the converging economies. There are no examples in world history of small economies that remained apart from the global economy but still attained a high standard of living.

Although almost every country now claims that its goal is to participate in global trade, the possible negative consequences have remained highly controversial. It is useful to divide these possible negative consequences into issues involving trade of goods and services and issues involving international capital flows. These issues are related, but not the same. An economy may have a high level of trade in goods and services relative to GDP, but if exports and imports are balanced, the net flow of foreign investment in and out of the economy will be zero. Conversely, an economy may have only a moderate level of trade relative to GDP, but find that it has a substantial current account trade imbalance. Thus, it is useful to consider the concerns over international trade of goods and services and international flows of financial capital separately.

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