Balance of Trade Concerns

Concerns over International Flows of Capital

Recall from The Macroeconomic Perspective that a trade deficit exists when a nation’s imports exceed its exports. In order for a trade deficit to take place, foreign countries must provide loans or investments, which they are willing to do because they expect eventual repayment (that the deficit will become a surplus). A trade surplus, you may remember, exists when a nation’s exports exceed its imports. Thus, in order for a trade deficit to switch to a trade surplus, a nation’s exports must rise and its imports must fall. Sometimes this happens when the currency decreases in value. For example, if the U.S. had a trade deficit and the dollar depreciated, imports would become more expensive. This would, in turn, benefit the foreign countries that provided the loans or investments.

The expected pattern of trade imbalances in the world economy has been that high-income economies will run trade surpluses, which means they will experience a net outflow of capital to foreign destinations or export more than they import, while low- and middle-income economies will run trade deficits, which means that they will experience a net inflow of foreign capital.

This international investing pattern can benefit all sides. Investors in the high-income countries benefit because they can receive high returns on their investments, and also because they can diversify their investments so that they are at less risk of a downturn in their own domestic economy. The low-income economies that receive an inflow of capital presumably have potential for rapid catch-up economic growth, and they can use the international financial capital inflow to help spur their physical capital investment. In addition, financial capital inflows often come with management abilities, technological expertise, and training.

However, for the last couple of decades, this cheerful scenario has faced two “dark clouds.” The first cloud is the very large trade or current account deficits in the U.S. economy. (See The International Trade and Capital Flows.) Instead of offering net financial investment abroad, the U.S. economy is soaking up savings from all over the world. These substantial U.S. trade deficits may not be sustainable according to Sebastian Edwards writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research. While trade deficits on their own are not bad, the question is whether governments will reduce them gradually or hastily. In the gradual scenario, U.S. exports could grow more rapidly than imports over a period of years, aided by U.S. dollar depreciation. An unintended consequence of the slow growth since the Great Recession has been a decline in the U.S. current account deficit's from 6% pre-recession to 3% most recently.

The other option is that the government could reduce the U.S. trade deficit in a rush. Here is one scenario: if foreign investors became less willing to hold U.S. dollar assets, the dollar exchange rate could weaken. As speculators see this process happening, they might rush to unload their dollar assets, which would drive the dollar down still further.

A lower U.S. dollar would stimulate aggregate demand by making exports cheaper and imports more expensive. It would mean higher prices for imported inputs throughout the economy, shifting the short-term aggregate supply curve to the left. The result could be a burst of inflation and, if the Federal Reserve were to run a tight monetary policy to reduce the inflation, it could also lead to recession. People sometimes talk as if the U.S. economy, with its great size, is invulnerable to this sort of pressure from international markets. While it is difficult to rock, it is not impossible for the $17 trillion U.S. economy to face these international pressures.

The second “dark cloud” is how the smaller world economies should deal with the possibility of sudden foreign financial capital inflows and outflows. Perhaps the most vivid recent example of the potentially destructive forces of international capital movements occurred in the East Asian Tiger economies in 1997–1998. Thanks to their excellent growth performance over the previous few decades, these economies had attracted considerable interest from foreign investors. In the mid-1990s, however, foreign investment into these countries surged even further. Much of this money funneled through banks that borrowed in U.S. dollars and loaned in their national currencies. Bank lending surged at rates of 20% per year or more. This inflow of foreign capital meant that investment in these economies exceeded the level of domestic savings, so that current account deficits in these countries jumped into the 5–10% GDP range.

The surge in bank lending meant that many banks in these East Asian countries did not do an especially good job of screening out safe and unsafe borrowers. Many of the loans—as high as 10% to 15% of all loans in some of these countries—started to turn bad. Fearing losses, foreign investors started pulling out their money. As the foreign money left, the exchange rates of these countries crashed, often falling by 50% or more in a few months. The banks were stuck with a mismatch: even if the rest of their domestic loans were repaid, they could never pay back the U.S. dollars that they owed. The banking sector as a whole went bankrupt. The lack of credit and lending in the economy collapsed aggregate demand, bringing on a deep recession.

If the flow and ebb of international capital markets can flip even the economies of the East Asian Tigers, with their stellar growth records, into a recession, then it is no wonder that other middle- and low-income countries around the world are concerned. Moreover, similar episodes of an inflow and then an outflow of foreign financial capital have rocked a number of economies around the world: for example, in the last few years, economies like Ireland, Iceland, and Greece have all experienced severe shocks when foreign lenders decided to stop extending funds. Especially in Greece, this caused the government to enact austerity measures which led to protests throughout the country (Figure).

This is a photo of young people marching through a street holding a sign with Greek writing on it.
Protests in Greece The economic conditions in Greece have deteriorated from the Great Recession such that the government had to enact austerity measures, (strict rules) cutting wages and increasing taxes on its population. Massive protests are but one byproduct. (Credit: modification of work by Apostolos/Flickr Creative Commons)

Many nations are taking steps to reduce the risk that their economy will be injured if foreign financial capital takes flight, including having their central banks hold large reserves of foreign exchange and stepping up their regulation of domestic banks to avoid a wave of imprudent lending. The most controversial steps in this area involve whether countries should try to take steps to control or reduce the flows of foreign capital. If a country could discourage some speculative short-term capital inflow, and instead only encourage investment capital that it committed for the medium and the long term, then it could be at least somewhat less susceptible to swings in the sentiments of global investors.

If economies participate in the global trade of goods and services, they will also need to participate in international flows of financial payments and investments. These linkages can offer great benefits to an economy. However, any nation that is experiencing a substantial and sustained pattern of trade deficits, along with the corresponding net inflow of international financial capital, has some reason for concern. During the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, countries that grew dramatically in the years leading up to the crisis as international capital flowed in, saw their economies collapse when the capital very quickly flowed out.

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