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December 1998

Volume 4 Number 13

Viewing the Current Account Deficit as a Capital Inflow
Matthew Higgins and Thomas Klitgaard

With the 1998 current account deficit approaching $225 billion, attention is again focusing
on the deficit’s impact on U.S. jobs. Although a high deficit does adversely affect employment
in export- and import-competing industries, it also means that considerable foreign capital is
flowing into the United States, supporting domestic investment spending that stimulates
growth and creates jobs.
The 1998 jump in the U.S. current account deficit—the
broadest measure of the trade deficit—to nearly
$225 billion is prompting concerns that American jobs
are in jeopardy.1 Increasing competition in the domestic
market from low-cost Asian imports could put pressure
on U.S. firms to lay off workers. Exporters whose sales
decline as the strong dollar raises the price of their
goods in foreign markets could also move to restrict
employment. Finally, jobs in export-oriented firms have
been hurt by the recession in Asia, which has weakened
demand for U.S. goods.
Adding to concerns about the employment effects of
the current account deficit is the fear that increasing
numbers of U.S. firms will shut down domestic operations and shift production to other countries, largely to
take advantage of lower labor costs. In fact, some
observers worry that the dollar’s recent strength against
Asian currencies may induce U.S. firms to buy Asian
manufacturing plants at fire-sale prices, leaving fewer
jobs for U.S. workers.
Nevertheless, while export and import trends support
concerns about U.S. job losses, employment statistics
do not bear out the relationship between a rising current
account deficit and lower employment. During the
1990s, the unemployment rate has declined steadily,
reaching a twenty-five-year low this year, while the current account deficit has mounted. Are the concerns over
U.S. job losses from international trade misplaced?

In this edition of Current Issues, we argue that the U.S.
current account deficit is not a threat to employment for
the economy as a whole. When viewed narrowly as the
gap between exports and imports, the current account
deficit translates into lower employment in export- and
import-competing industries. However, when seen from
an economywide perspective, the deficit represents an
inflow of employment-generating foreign investment
capital to the United States. Given the low level of
domestic private saving in recent years, U.S. economic
growth would likely be choked off by higher interest
rates and reduced investment spending if the nation had
no access to this capital.
How International Capital Flows Affect U.S. Employment
The debate over the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) highlighted worries that economic globalization could lower domestic employment.
A particular concern was that the lower trade barriers
mandated by NAFTA and other trade agreements would
make it easier for U.S. firms to shut down domestic
plants and move operations abroad. The goods produced abroad would then be sold in foreign markets or
shipped back to the United States, with both actions
tending to boost the U.S. current account deficit and
reduce U.S. employment. While the NAFTA debate has
receded from the headlines, the possibility that an
employer will relocate overseas remains a legitimate
worry for many U.S. workers.


Foreign direct investment (FDI) data appear to support this concern. FDI is a broad measure that captures
U.S. ownership of foreign business enterprises.2 At the
end of 1997, U.S. foreign direct investment assets had
jumped to $1,794 billion (valued at the current market
price), up from $732 billion in 1990. U.S. holdings in
the developing world—whose low-cost producers have
been the focus of much of the job-loss fears—
accounted for roughly 40 percent of this total. In 1997
alone, investment funds flowing out of the United
States reached $122 billion, an amount equal to more
than 14 percent of investment spending by U.S. firms.

ment, or investment abroad more generally, may be misplaced. Instead, concerns about the employment effects
of the trade deficit might more logically focus on the
imbalance in the level of imports and exports. Although
U.S. sales abroad support domestic employment, U.S.
imports are far higher and they displace domestic production and lower employment. 4 Indeed, one study
places the net U.S. job loss due to the merchandise trade
deficit at 2.4 million in 1994.5
These seemingly conflicting findings lead us to ask
an important question: What is the relationship between
the large U.S. current account deficit and the nation’s
status as a net recipient of employment-promoting foreign investment capital?

The sheer size of foreign operations of U.S. multinational corporations also contributes to concern over
foreign direct investment. In 1996, nonbank, majorityowned U.S. affiliates employed 6 million people abroad,
with less than half working in the developing world.
The value-added output from these operations totaled
$498 billion, $125 billion of which was generated in the
developing world. These figures suggest that U.S.
multinationals today produce more than $500 billion in
goods and services abroad, rather than manufacturing
them in the United States.

Translating the Current Account Balance
into Capital Flows
The national income accounts, which are used to calculate GDP, provide a useful framework for analyzing the
connection between the current account balance and net
capital flows and, in turn, their relationship to domestic
saving and investment. National income accounting
shows that the current account balance is related to
domestic saving and investment spending in the following way:

In assessing the impact of international capital flows
on U.S. employment, however, one must consider the
offsetting role played by foreign investment in the
United States. As of 1996, nonbank U.S. affiliates of
foreign firms employed 5 million workers here, and
production totaled $340 billion. By the end of 1997,
total foreign direct investment assets in the United
States stood at $1,621 billion, with the United Kingdom
emerging as the largest source of these funds, followed
by Canada and Japan. In 1997, the flow of FDI funds
into the United States totaled $93 billion. After subtracting this total from the $122 billion flowing out of
the United States, one finds that the 1997 net outflow of
FDI funds, although the largest on record, amounted to
only $29 billion, or 3.3 percent of domestic business
investment spending.

(1) current account balance = domestic saving –
domestic investment.
The box offers a more detailed derivation of this relationship. In equation 1, domestic saving is the sum of
private saving and government saving. Private saving
comprises both individuals’ saving and corporations’
retained earnings, while government saving refers to
tax receipts less expenditure on current goods and
services. 6 Domestic investment is private investment
plus government infrastructure expenditure. Equation 1,
in essence, defines the current account balance as the
savings gap—that is, the difference between domestic
saving and domestic investment spending.
The national income accounts also reveal that a
country’s overseas investment is related to domestic
saving and investment spending as follows:

Other types of capital outflow from the United States
are also offset by funds entering the country. Capital
leaves the country in the form of portfolio investment—
the purchase of foreign government or corporate bonds,
or of an equity stake of less than 10 percent in a foreign
business—and banking transactions. Bringing together
foreign direct investment, portfolio investment, and banking and miscellaneous transactions, we find that U.S. residents invested a total of $478 billion abroad in 1997. At
the same time, foreign residents invested some $733 billion in the United States, resulting in a net investment
inflow of nearly $255 billion. Thus, the U.S. economy is
the net recipient of international investment capital.3

(2) net foreign asset purchases = domestic saving –
domestic investment.7
Simply put, a country invests abroad when its
domestic savings are more than sufficient to f inance
domestic investment expenditure. Such a country sends
its surplus savings abroad in the form of foreign direct
investment or investment in foreign stocks, bonds, or
real estate. This stream of surplus savings is referred to
as a capital outflow, making the country a net lender to
the world. A country that does not generate savings
sufficient to f inance its own investment needs must
attract surplus foreign savings in the form of a capital

These simple calculations suggest that concerns
about the employment effects of foreign direct investFRBNY


inflow. Such a country records negative net foreign
asset purchases, or equivalently, is a net borrower from
the world.

serve the equality of the savings gap and the current
account balance. However, the savings-gap perspective
does offer a grounding for trade policy debates. In particular, any argument about the behavior of a country’s
current account balance should be reconciled with a
plausible argument about the behavior of the gap
between saving and investment spending.

The fact that the right-hand side of equation 2 is
identical to the right-hand side of equation 1 implies
that a current account surplus is matched by an equal
net outflow of investment funds overseas, while a
deficit is matched by an equal net inflow of foreign
investment funds. The identification of the current
account balance with net purchases of foreign assets
makes considerable sense: a country is in effect lending
to the world when the value of the goods it sells abroad
(exports) exceeds the value of the goods it purchases
(imports). Such a country accepts foreign IOUs, in the
form of increased holdings of foreign assets, to bridge
the gap between the value of exports and imports.
Therefore, the current account balance and foreign
asset purchases are simply two ways of looking at the
same underlying quantity of lending.8

The Need for Foreign Capital
The connection between the current account balance
and net capital flows, as specified in the savings-gap
view, sheds light on the issues surrounding international trade and employment. A high current account
deficit may indeed hurt employment in particular firms
and industries as workers are displaced by increased
imports or by the relocation of production abroad. At
the economywide level, however, the current account
deficit is matched by an equal inflow of foreign capital,
which finances employment-sustaining investment
spending that would not otherwise occur.10

We stress that this view of the current account balance as equivalent to the savings gap—the difference
between domestic saving and investment spending—is
not a theory of how the balance is determined. 9 As a
result, the view involves no claims about how other economic variables, such as exchange rates, adjust to pre-

To clarify this point, we consider the behavior of the
U.S. current account in the 1990s. The current account
deficit has climbed steadily during the country’s recent
economic expansion, but so has domestic employment:
the unemployment rate now stands near its twenty-five-

Saving, Investment, and the Current Account Balance
X - M - Tr = (Sp - Ip) + (T - G),

Using national income accounting, we can demonstrate how
the equivalence of the current account balance and net capital inflows arises. Specifically, the national income accounts
treat gross national product (GNP) as the sum of income
derived from producing goods and services under the following categories: private consumption (C), private investment (Ip), government goods and services (G), and exports
(X). Imports (M) are treated as a negative item to avoid the
double counting of consumption or investment goods purchased at home but produced abroad. Thus, GNP is given by

with X - M - Tr equaling the current account.
In other words, the current account balance is equal to the
surplus of private savings over investment and the gap
between government tax receipts and government expenditure
on goods and services, that is, the government budget surplus.
A final equation is needed to clarify the link between the
current account balance and the net flow of foreign investment capital. A dollar of savings can be classified according
to the type of asset it buys. In particular, the dollar can be
used to purchase domestic physical capital, domestic government debt, or a foreign asset (FA) of some sort. Recalling
that net issuance of government debt is equal to the government budget deficit, G - T, we have

GNP = C + Ip + G + X - M,
with X - M representing net exports plus net factor income.a
A second basic equation in the national income accounts
is based on the insight that any income received by individuals has four possible uses: it can be consumed (C), saved (S p,
for private savings), paid in taxes (T), or transferred abroad
(Tr). Because GNP is simply the sum of the income received
by all individuals in the economy, we have

Sp = Ip + (G - T) + FA.
Rearranging, we have
FA = (Sp - Ip) + (G - T) ® FA = X - M.

GNP = C + Sp + T + Tr.

This last equation can be interpreted as representing the fact
that a country accumulates foreign assets (or equivalently, is
a net lender to the rest of the world) when domestic private
saving is more than sufficient to finance private investment
spending plus the government budget deficit.

By equating the two expressions for GNP developed
above, canceling out C, and rearranging terms, we derive the
following equation:
a Net

factor income captures the returns on domestic and foreign assets.



Chart 1

The Growing Foreign Debt Burden
The current account deficit allows the United States to
maintain a higher rate of investment spending than
would be possible by relying on domestically generated
savings alone. However, the corresponding foreign capital inflow is essentially a loan; therefore, it represents
claims on future national income. Before the 1980s, the
United States was a net lender to the world. In subsequent years, however, large current account deficits
brought total U.S. indebtedness to $1.3 trillion by the
end of 1997, or a little more than 12 percent of GDP.12
Going forward, a continuation of these large deficits
would cause foreign indebtedness as a share of GDP to
rise rapidly.13

U.S. Investment and Saving
Percentage share of GDP
Total domestic






Total saving






Whether current account deficits and the associated
foreign debt burden represent a policy concern depends
on one’s view of the trade-off between higher investment and higher external indebtedness. One school of
thought holds that the source of the deficit lies in a
favorable U.S. investment climate, which acts as a magnet for foreign capital. According to this view, foreign
investment funds raise the U.S. capital stock. By boosting future U.S. GDP, the higher capital stock makes it
easier for the nation to pay off the higher foreign debt.


Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Notes: The share of nominal GDP is calculated as a four-quarter moving
average. The gap between investment and saving is the current account
adjusted for national income accounts data coverage. Private saving and
investment have been adjusted to compensate for statistical discrepancies
between the savings gap and net foreign investment. The shaded areas
denote periods designated recessions by the NBER.

year low. From an economywide perspective, the deterioration in the current account balance is being driven by
an increase in domestic investment and a fall in saving
as shares of GDP (Chart 1). The shortfall in domestic
saving means that the increase in investment spending,
and the robust job growth associated with it, could only
be financed through foreign saving, in the form of a
capital inflow to the United States. Accordingly, the
country’s high current account deficit can be viewed as
a reflection of this need for foreign capital to sustain the

The Savings Gap and the Current Account Balance
Private saving
Government budget balance
Private domestic investment

The discussion thus far has emphasized changes in
saving and investment as the primary forces driving the
U.S. current account balance. However, this argument
does not imply that domestic factors alone can affect
the current account balance. Foreign developments can
also indirectly affect domestic saving and investment
behavior. A recent example is the recession in Japan,
which reduced U.S. sales to that country and boosted
Japanese sales to the United States (to the extent that
the recession weakened the yen).11 However, the recession also brought a sharp slump in Japan’s domestic
investment spending and thus an increase in the flow of
surplus Japanese savings to the world. The increased
capital outflow from Japan placed downward pressure
on world and U.S. interest rates, which helped boost
U.S. investment and consequently limited the Japanese
recession’s negative fallout on U.S. employment.

Net foreign investment
Statistical adjustment
Current account balance
Unemployment rate

$993 billion

$1,114 billion

-$276 billion

$29 billion

$718 billion

$1,143 billion

$768 billion

$1,284 billion

-$50 billion

-$141 billion

-$1 billion

-$14 billion

-$51 billion

-$155 billion

7.4 percent

5.0 percent

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, National
Income and Product Accounts and Balance of Payments Accounts.
Notes: Figures in parentheses are percentages of nominal GDP. Private saving
and investment have been adjusted to compensate for statistical discrepancies
between the savings gap and net foreign investment. The statistical adjustment
reflects differences in how national income accounts and balance of payments
data are calculated. Figures may not sum to totals because of rounding.



A less sanguine view is that the source of the deficit lies
in an anemic U.S. saving rate, which forces the country
to rely on foreign capital to maintain its current level of

private saving as a share of GDP, however, meant that
the recovery had to be financed in part through
increased foreign borrowing (Chart 2). So while it is not
evident from the performance of the U.S. current
account balance, the federal government has helped
slow the increase in foreign indebtedness by eliminating its need to borrow from the domestic savings pool.

Despite their differences, proponents of both views
would agree that to slow the accumulation of foreign
debt without reducing investment spending, the United
States has to raise its saving rate, either through
increased private saving or through further improvements in the government budget balance. Studies have
shown that policies aimed at promoting private saving
through tax incentives have had little success, leaving
the budget balance as the most direct policy tool for
raising national saving.15

Viewing the current account deficit as a capital inflow
helps to dispel misconceptions about the consequences
of economic globalization. The current account deficit,
seen as the net balance in the trade of goods and
services, does translate into fewer jobs in export- and
import-competing firms and industries. Yet when viewed
as the net inflow of foreign investment capital, the
current account deficit produces jobs for the economy
as a whole: both from the direct effects of higher
employment in investment-oriented industries and from
the indirect effects of higher investment spending on
economywide employment. Increased investment spending, however, comes at the cost of greater foreign debt.
The federal government has done its part to slow the
accumulation of debt by eliminating the budget deficit,
an action that helps ensure the productive use of the
foreign capital inflow. Nevertheless, because of the
downward trend in private saving, the United States
must continue to rely on foreign capital to maintain an
adequate rate of investment spending.

The federal government has been successful in
increasing national saving by eliminating the budget
deficit. However, these efforts have been blurred by offsetting developments. The government budget balance
and the current account balance deteriorated together in
the 1980s, prompting analysts to label them the “twin
deficits.” But in the 1990s, the two balances have
moved in opposite directions. The government balance
went from a $276 billion deficit in 1992 to a surplus of
$29 billion in 1997, while the current account deficit
swelled from $51 billion to $155 billion (see table).16
The elimination of the government budget deficit by
itself would have freed sufficient savings to finance
the recovery in investment spending following the
recession of the early 1990s. The continued decline in


Percentage share of GDP

1. The current account includes imports and exports of goods and
services, net payments for factor services such as interest on securities, and profits from foreign direct investment. In addition, it
includes net transfers such as government payments of social security to U.S. citizens living abroad.


2. The foreign ownership stake must be 10 percent or more.
Purchases of real estate are also included in FDI.

Chart 2

Private Saving and the Government Balance

3. Note that flows outside the FDI category indirectly support
domestic investment spending because of the fungibility of investment funds. For example, the purchase of U.S. government debt by
foreign residents frees up an equal amount of domestically generated saving to support plant and equipment investment.

Private saving



4. The U.S. Commerce Department uses a detailed input-output
table to calculate the number of full-time jobs directly and indirectly
based on exports. (A job is considered to be indirectly based on
exports when it involves providing intermediate parts or supplies to
the exporting firm.) The Department’s most recent report (Davis
1996) finds that exports of merchandise support 6.8 million jobs
and exports of services support an additional 3.5 million jobs. The
Commerce Department does not conduct a similar analysis of jobs
lost because of imports.

Private saving plus
government balance







Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Notes: The share of nominal GDP is calculated as a four-quarter moving
average. Private saving has been adjusted to compensate for statistical
discrepancies between the savings gap and net foreign investment. The
shaded areas denote periods designated recessions by the NBER.

5. This study (Scott, Lee, and Schmitt 1997) reaches a conclusion
that seems plausible. However, the results become less intuitive




when one considers that adding back the jobs “lost” from the trade
deficit would drop the national unemployment rate to near 2.0 percent in 1998, a rate far below any value observed in the postwar era.
6. Government saving is equal to the government budget balance
plus government infrastructure investment.
7. Net foreign asset purchases refer to purchases of foreign assets
by U.S. residents less purchases of U.S. assets by foreign residents.
These purchases in both directions are themselves net purchases,
that is, purchases by U.S. residents of additional foreign assets less
sales of current foreign asset holdings.
8. In theory, the capital account, which tracks asset purchases
between countries, should match the current account. In practice,
the two usually differ because of statistical discrepancies.
9. In particular, equations 1 and 2 are identities, that is, they are
true by definition. Equation 1, for example, does not make any
empirical claim about the determination of GDP; rather, it is simply
a way of classifying GDP according to the type of good produced.
Similarly, equation 2 is simply a way of classifying GDP according
to the use made of income.
10. It is not possible to compute the net employment effects of the
current account deficit—that is, the difference between the number
of jobs lost from net trade flows and the number supported by the
corresponding foreign capital inflow. The current account deficit
and matching capital inflow are, of course, exactly equal in dollar
terms. However, we have no clear basis for specifying the counterfactual saving and investment flows that would hold in the absence
of a current account deficit. The employment effects of eliminating
the deficit by increasing domestic saving—and thus reducing consumption spending—might well be different from the employment
effects of eliminating the deficit by reducing investment spending.
11. The result has been a higher bilateral trade deficit with Japan.
By itself, a higher bilateral deficit need not lead to an increase in the
overall U.S. current account deficit.
12. Despite the United States’ position as a net debtor, earnings on
its international investment portfolio have often exceeded the corresponding payments abroad during the 1990s. The reason, in part, is
that the United States earns a much higher rate of return on its foreign direct investment holdings than foreign residents earn on their

direct investments in the United States. In 1997, U.S. residents
earned an average rate of return of 10.9 percent on their holdings
abroad, while foreign residents earned 5.8 percent on their U.S.
holdings (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic
13. For example, a persistent current account deficit equal to 2 percent of GDP would push the foreign debt/GDP ratio past 40 percent
by 2020 and past 50 percent by 2045. (This calculation assumes a
trend-nominal GDP growth rate of 5 percent.)
14. This view presupposes some sort of market failure (for example, a lack of information about the future consequences of
maintaining today’s low saving rate) that prevents U.S. residents
from saving as much as they should.
15. For example, McCarthy and Pham (1995) discuss the limited
effectiveness of individual retirement accounts in raising national
16. In theory, net capital inflows to the United States always equal
the U.S. current account deficit. In practice, the two amounts sometimes differ because of problems in data gathering. For example, the
failure to track all capital inflows to the United States would cause
net capital inflows to be different from the current account. In 1997,
the discrepancy attributed to such data-gathering problems was
roughly $100 billion, an amount almost twice as big as the previous
record. Thus, the 1997 U.S. current account deficit of $155 billion
differed by $100 billion from the $255 billion recorded as the net
investment inflow.

Davis, Lester. 1996. “U.S. Jobs Supported by Goods and Services
Exports, 1983-94.” U.S. Department of Commerce Research
Series OMA-1-96.
McCarthy, Jonathan, and Han Pham. 1995. “The Impact of
Individual Retirement Accounts on Savings.” Federal Reserve
Bank of New York Current Issues in Economics and Finance 1,
no. 6.
Scott, Robert, Thea Lee, and John Schmitt. 1997. Trading Away
Good Jobs: An Examination of Employment and Wages in the
U.S., 1979-94. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.

About the Authors
Matthew Higgins and Thomas Klitgaard are senior economists in the International Research Function of
the Research and Market Analysis Group.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System.

Current Issues in Economics and Finance is published by the Research and Market Analysis Group of the Federal
Reserve Bank of New York. Dorothy Meadow Sobol is the editor.
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