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April 20, 1984

Which Trade Balance?
Humpty Dumpty: "When I usea word,
it meansjust what I choose to mean,
it
neithermorenor less."(Lewis
Carroll,
Throughthe LookingGlass.)
In February, newspapers across the nation
reported that the U.s. trade" deficit for
"
1983 was $60.6 billion. A month later they
reported a 1983 "trade" deficit of $40.8
billion. But the national income account
data given in the recent Survey Current
of
Businessists still another version of the
I
"trade"deficit-$7.1
billion. Will the real
trade deficit please stand up?
Neither media inaccuracy nor government
revisions can be blamed for these
discrepancies. Rather, what is commonly
referred to as "the trade balance" is actually
measured and reported in several different
ways. Anyone wanting to know this balanc:e
has the following choices: the merchandise
trade balance, itself measured in several
ways; " G N P net exports", which gives the
balance of trade in merchandise and
services; or the current account balance.
While these balances generally move
closely together over time, their levels are
typically very different. For example, it was
the merchandise balance that.was $60.6
billion in deficit last year, whilethe current
account and GN P net export deficits were
$40.8 and $7.1 billion, respectively. For
those who sti II wantto know whatthe deficit
really was, this Letter
provides a short
II gu ide to the perplexed", expl ai ni ng the
various balances, their relation to one
another, and their economic significance.

The current account includes all transactions that are "current" in an accounting
sense, that is, all payments and receipts for
goods and services exchanged with
.
foreigners, as well as transfers. Excluded
from the current account are u.S. urchases
p
from or sales to foreigners of financial or real
assets. These items, which represent u.S.
entities' lending to or borrowing from
foreigners, comprise the capital account of
the U.S. balance of payments.
If, in any year, total U.S. payments to
foreigners on a current basis exceed our
receipts from them (that is, we run a current
account deficit), our country must borrow
from abroad to make up the difference.
Conversely, we must lend to foreigners any
difference between our sales to them on a
current basis and our payments. The current
account surplus or deficit therefore also
measuresthe tietamountthe U.s. s a whole
a
is lending to or borrowing from abroad
during a given year. Last year, we ran a
current account deficit of $40.8 billion; this
means that we borrowed a net amount of
$40.8 billion from abroad.
The current account itself, though, contains
three distinct types of transactions:

merchandise
trade,productiveservices
provided by land, labor, and capital; and
transfers,
which include foreign aid and
private remittances as well as payments to
foreigners of interest on their holdings of
u.s.government debt: These, in turn, are
"arranged'! into the three basic balancesmerchandise trade, GN P net exports of
goods and services, and, finally, the current
account balance itself.

Current account

The most comprehensive summary of u.s.
trade with the rest of the world is given by
the current account balance. Indeed, the
current account contains the other balances
mentioned above and all the transactions in
them.

Merchandise trade balance

The merchandise trade account contains all
exports and imports of tangiblecommodities,e.g., agricultural products, industrial
materials such as steel, consumer manufactures, and capital goods. Actual merchan-

in this
not
reiled lhe view'> of the
}·""'!tCC" "I i<eserve
of San FeH''''",,,n
or of lhe Hoard of Covernors of llw Feder,,1
Reserve System,

However, the largest and most rapidly
growi ng component of factor services
represents payments for services provided
by physical capital. These include recorded
earnings from u.s. investments abroad as
well as payments to foreigners on their
investments in the U.s., except for the
interest they earn on their holdings of U.S.
goverrfment (federal, state and local) debt.
Interest payments to foreigners on government debt are not included in these services
(although they are included in the current
account) because, according to U.S.
national income accounting conventions,
they represent a transfer rather than a
payment for a current factor service.

dise trade figures are reported several
different ways depending on the extent to
which various services involved in transporting them are included.
Imports and exports on a "free-along-side"
(f.a.s.) basis are valued as del ivered to their
point of embarkation for or departure from
the U.S. The f.a.s. figures are thus the purest
measuresof the values of the commodities
themselves. Other export/import figures
refer to their value "free-on-board" (f.o.b.),
that is, inclusive of loading and related costs.
Still other figures include the "cost of
insurance and freight" (cU.) in addition to
the loading costs and the aCtual (La.s.)
commodity value.

Overall, the service balance typically
records a large surplus, nearly $54 billion in
1983. This mainly reflects the fact that the
U.S. earns considerably more on its investments abroad than it pays to foreigners on
their investments here. Indeed, our reported
investment receipts totaled $85 billio'llast
year (nearly two-thirds of all service.
exports), exceeding payments to foreigners
on their investments in the U.S. by nearly
$47 billion.

The first merchandise trade balance figures'
. reported each month by the Commerce
Department, and the ones most frequently
quoted in the media, are the "census"
figures based on the export and import
invoices recorded at various U.s. customs
stations. These figures value imports at their
point of entry into the U.s., that is, on a cLf.
basis, while they value exports on an f.a.s.
basis. (Commerce reports the balance on an
f.a.s. basis for both exports and imports
several days following the release of the
census data.) The census balance thus
includes the transport and other service
costs of bringing imports to the U.S. but
excludes the service costs involved in
getting our exports abroad. Not surprisingly
then, last year's census-based deficit of $69
bill ion was substantially larger than the f.a.s.
merchandise deficit of $60.6 billion . .

The sum of the (f.a.s.) merchandise trade and
service balances yields what is known as
"G N P net exports." This is the net export
figure given in the U.S. national income
statistics and it is one of the four major
components of U.S. GNP.

Transfers and the remainder
The remainder of the current account
consists of unilateral transfers such as
private contributions, pension payments,
official foreign aid, as well as interest
payments to foreigners on their holdings of
U.S. government debt. The U.S. always runs
a large deficit overall in these items,
amounting to nearly $33 billion in 1983, $18
billion of which represented U.S.
government interest paid to foreigners.

Services
Services provided by factors of production
-land, labor and capital-are the second .
major category of transactions in the cu rrent
account. Included in such "factor" services
are personal travel and tourism, royalties
and other fees from professional services, as
well as all services associated with transporting and insuring U.s. merchandise
trade.

Meaning
On this basis, last year's $41 billion current
account deficit was the sum of our $61
2

Chart 2'
The Balances

Chart 1
Components of the Current Account: 1983
BIllions of Dolllll'$

I Bll1lons al Oollars}

30
20

Merchandise Trade

-$60.6

10

Services

o

+ $53.5

.10

-$7.1
Transfers

- $33.6

Net Exports·

·20

GNP Net
Exports

·30

Current
AccDunt

)

·40

- $40.8

·50
·60

Minus sign means dllltcil

Merchandise Trade·

·70 ..............
-'-'-"
1970

1972

1974

.......-'- ...... .-... ..........
1976

°NallonallntomeAccounls(I,a.s.)

billion merchandise trade deficit, the $54
billion surplus factor services (together
on
making up the $7 billion deficit on G N P net
exports), and our $33 billion deficit in
transfers and U.S. government interest payments to foreigners (Chart 1).

1978

1980

1982

basis

difference between foreign purchases of'
U.S. goods and services and U.S. purchases
of foreign goods and services. As such,
variations in G N P net exports have a direct
and potentially substantial impact on the
growth of our national output. As the foreign
sector has grown in importance to the u. s .
. economy over the last decade, forecasts of
U.S. growth have become increasingly
sensitive to assessmentsof G N P net exports.

Our merchandise trade balance has been in
deficit in all but two of the last fourteen
years, while the current account and G N P
net exports have more often been in surplus
(Chart 2). This pattern is due to the large U.s.
surplus in factor services-a surplus that has
grown very quickly in recent years mainly
because of the rapid increase in receipts
from our investments abroad. The services
surplus means that the u.s. can have a
substantial trade deficit even in years when
our total current international payments and
receipts (the current account) are in balance.
Interestingly, the situation is the opposite for
several of our trading partners. Japan, for
example, typically runs a substantial deficit
in services. Its merchandise trade therefore
may be in surplus, as is usually the case,
even when its current account is in deficit.

Finally, the current account's significance
lies mainly in the factthat it measures the net
flow of u.s. lending to or borrowing from
abroad, and hence, the change over time in
net U.S. indebtedness to foreigners. (The
U.S. is still a net claimant on abroad, butthis
cou Id change if our present deficits persist.)
This flow, in turn, has potentially very
important implications for financial
cond itions in the U.s. and for the val ue of
the dollar on the foreign exchanges. In
particular, the nearly $41 billion in funds the
U.S. "imported" from abroad last year
helped to meet the credit needs of our
private sector and the growing demand for
credit by the federal government. Upward
pressures on U.s. interest rates would
probably have been greater had these
foreign funds not been available.

Although the merchandise trade balance
gets the most media attention, the G N P net
export and current account balances are
more economically significant. In particular,
GN P netexports provide the best summary
measure of the foreign sector's impact on
U.S. output and
while the
current account balance measures the
impact ofthe foreign sector on u.s. financial
markets, i nclud i ng the value of the dollar on
the foreign exchange markets.

Likewise, concern is growingthatthe U.S. is
borrowing from abroad at an unsustainably
high rate through the current account. This
has led several observers to predict a sharp
decline in the dollar on the foreign
exchanges in 1 984 (to bring the current
account to a more sustainable level). Thus,
for financial markets these days, the "trade"
balance to watch is mainly our current
account.

GN P net exports comprise one of the four
major components of U.S. G N P (along with
private consumption and investment, and
government expenditures), measuring the

CharlesPigott

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B AN KI N G D ATA-TWE L F TH FEDERAL RESERVEDI STRI CT
( Dollar amounts in millions)

Selected Assetsand Liabilities
large Commercial Banks
Loans, Leases and Investments 1 2
Loans and Leases1 6
Commercial and Industrial
Real estate
Loans to Individuals
Leases
U.s. Treasury and Agency Securities2
Other Securities 2
Total Deposits
Demand Deposits
Demand Deposits Adjusted 3
Other Transaction Balances4
Total
Balances6
Money Market Deposit
Accounts-Total
Time Deposits in Amounts of
$100,000 or more
Other Liabilities for Borrowed MoneyS

Two Week Averages
of Daily Figures
ReservePosition, All Reporting Banks
Excess Reserves ( + )/Deficiency (- )
Borrowings
Net free reserves (+ )/Net borrowed( -)
1

Amount
Outstanding

4/04/84
177,973
157,976
47,111
59,510
27,557
5,011
12,241
7,757
189,072
45,744
29,888
13,033
130,295

3/28/84
1,323
1,309
150
91
121
12
42
27
3,955
2,838
1,102
976
140

40,287

- 272

37,913
17,114

Change from 12/28/83
Percent
Dollar
Annualized

Change
from

-

-

-

1,948
2,621
1,148
611
906
52
266
406
1,925
3,493
1,443
258
1,310

-

-

690
-

120
-1 ,521

-

Period ended

-

2.4
- 95.1

3/1 2/84

188
44
144

6.4

Period ended

3/26/84

252
5,893

4.1
6.2
9.2
3.8
12.6
3.8
7.8
18.4
3.7
26.3
17.1
7.5
3.7

189
49
139

Includes loss reserves, unearned income, excludes interbank loans

2 Excludes trading account securities
3 Excludes U.s. government and depository institution deposits and cash items

ATS, N OW, Super N O W and savings accounts with telephone transfers
S Includes borrowing via FRB, TI&L notes, Fed Funds, RPsand other sources
6 Includes items not shown separately
4

Editorial comments maybe addressed the editor (GregoryTong)or to the author .... Freecopiesof
to
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Bank of San Francisco,P.0. Box 7702, SanFrancisco94120. Phone(415) 974·2246.