The Effects Of Balance Of Trade Surplus And Deficit On A Country’s Economy


It is in no doubt that balance of trade which is sometimes symbolized as (NX) is described as the Difference between the monetary value of export and import of output in an economy over a certain period. It could also been seen as the relationship between the nation’s import and exports. When the balance has a positive indication, it is termed a trade surplus, i.e. if it consists of exporting more than is imported and a trade deficit or a trade gap if the reverse is the case. The Balance of trade is sometimes divided into a goods and a service balance. It encompasses the activity of exports and imports. It is expected that a country who does more of exports than imports stands a big chance of enjoying a balance of trade surplus in its economy more than its counterpart who does the opposite.

Economists and Government bureaus attempt to track trade deficits and surpluses by recording as many transactions with foreign entities as possible. Economists and Statisticians collect receipts from custom offices and routinely total imports, exports and financial transactions. The full accounting is called the ‘Balance of Payments’- this is used to calculate the balance of trade which almost always result in a trade surplus or deficit.

Pre-Contemporary understanding of the functioning of the balance of trade informed the economic policies of early modern Europe that are grouped under the heading ‘mercantilism’.

Mercantilism is the economic doctrine in which government control of foreign trade is of paramount importance for ensuring the prosperity and military security of the state. In particular, it demands a positive balance of trade. Its main purpose was to increase a nation’s wealth by imposing government regulation concerning all of the nation’s commercial interest. It was believed that national strength could be maximized by limiting imports via tariffs and maximizing export. It encouraged more exports and discouraged imports so as to gain trade balance advantage that would eventually culminate into trade surplus for the nation. In fact, this has been the common practice of the western world in which they were able to gain trade superiority over their colonies and third world countries such as Australia, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and other countries in Africa and some parts of the world. This is still the main reason why they still enjoy a lot of trade surplus benefit with these countries up till date. This has been made constantly predominant due to the lack of technical-know how and capacity to produce sufficient and durable up to standard goods by these countries, a situation where they solely rely on foreign goods to run their economy and most times, their moribund industries are seen relying on foreign import to survive.

What is Trade Surplus?

Trade Surplus can be defined as an Economic measure of a positive balance of trade where a country’s export exceeds its imports. A trade surplus represents a net inflow of domestic currency from foreign markets and is the opposite of a trade deficit, which would represent a net outflow.

Investopedia further explained the concept of trade surplus as when a nation has a trade surplus; it has control over the majority of its currency. This causes a reduction of risk for another nation selling this currency, which causes a drop in its value, when the currency loses value, it makes it more expensive to purchase imports, causing an even a greater imbalance.

A Trade surplus usually creates a situation where the surplus only grows (due to the rise in the value of the nation’s currency making imports cheaper). There are many arguments against Milton Freidman’s belief that trade imbalance will correct themselves naturally.

What is Trade Deficit?

Trade Deficit can be seen as an economic measure of negative balance of trade in which a country’s imports exceeds its export. It is simply the excess of imports over exports. As usual in Economics, there are several different views of trade deficit, depending on who you talk to. They could be perceived as either good or bad or both immaterial depending on the situation. However, few economists argue that trade deficits are always good.

Economists who consider trade deficit to be bad believes that a nation that consistently runs a current account deficit is borrowing from abroad or selling off capital assets -long term assets-to finance current purchases of goods and services. They believe that continual borrowing is not a viable long term strategy, and that selling long term assets to finance current consumption undermines future production.

Economists who consider trade deficit good associates them with positive economic development, specifically, higher levels of income, consumer confidence, and investment. They argue that trade deficit enables the United States to import capital to finance investment in productive capacity. Far from hurting employment as may be earlier perceived. They also hold the view that trade deficit financed by foreign investment in the United States help to boost U.S employment.

Some Economists view the concept of trade deficit as a mere expression of consumer preferences and as immaterial. These economists typically equate economic well being with rising consumption. If consumers want imported food, clothing and cars, why shouldn’t they buy them? That ranging of Choices is seen as them as symptoms of a successful and dynamic economy.

Perhaps the best and most suitable view about Trade deficit is the balanced view. If a trade deficit represents borrowing to finance current consumption rather than long term investment, or results from inflationary pressure, or erodes U.S employment, then it’s bad. If a trade deficit fosters borrowing to finance long term investment or reflects rising incomes, confidence and investment-and doesn’t hurt employment-then it’s good. If trade deficit merely expresses consumer preference rather than these phenomena, then it should be treated as immaterial.

How does a Trade surplus and Deficit Arise?

A trade surplus arises when countries sell more goods than they import. Conversely, trade deficits arise when countries import more than they export. The value of goods and services imported more exported is recorded on the country’s version of a ledger known as the ‘current account’. A positive account balance means the nation carries a surplus. According to the Central Intelligence Agency Work fact book, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, And Iran are net Creditors Nations. Examples of countries with a deficit or ‘net debtor’ nations are United States, Spain, the United Kingdom and India.

Difference between Trade Surplus and Trade Deficit

A country is said to have trade surplus when it exports more than it imports. Conversely, a country has a trade deficit when it imports more than it exports. A country can have an overall trade deficit or surplus. Or simply have with a specific country. Either Situation presents problems at high levels over long periods of time, but a surplus is generally a positive development, while a deficit is seen as negative. Economists recognize that trade imbalances of either sort are common and necessary in international trade.

Competitive Advantage of Trade Surplus and Trade Deficit

From the 16th and 18th Century, Western European Countries believed that the only way to engage in trade were through the exporting of as many goods and services as possible. Using this method, Countries always carried a surplus and maintained large pile of gold. Under this system called the ‘Mercantilism’, the concise encyclopedia of Economics explains that nations had a competitive advantage by having enough money in the event a war broke out so as to be able to Self-sustain its citizenry. The interconnected Economies of the 21st century due to the rise of Globalization means Countries have new priorities and trade concerns than war. Both Surpluses and deficits have their advantages.

Trade Surplus Advantage

Nations with trade surplus have several competitive advantage s by having excess reserves in its Current Account; the nation has the money to buy the assets of other countries. For Instance, China and Japan use their Surpluses to buy U.S bonds. Purchasing the debt of other nations allows the buyer a degree of political influence. An October 2010 New York Times article explains how President Obama must consistently engage in discussions with China about its $28 Billion deficit with the country. Similarly, the United States hinges its ability to consume on China’s continuing purchase of U.S assets and cheap goods. Carrying a surplus also provides a cash flow with which to reinvest in its machinery, labour force and economy. In this regard, carrying a surplus is akin to a business making a profit-the excess reserves create opportunities and choices that nations with debts necessarily have by virtue of debts and obligations to repay considerations.

Trade Deficits Advantage

George Alessandria, Senior Economist for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve explains trade deficits also indicate an efficient allocation of Resources: Shifting the production of goods and services to China allows U.S businesses to allocate more money towards its core competences, such as research and development. Debt also allows countries to take on more ambitious undertakings and take greater risks. Though the U.S no longer produces and export as many goods and services, the nations remains one of the most innovative. For Example, Apple can pay its workers more money to develop the Best Selling, Cutting Edge Products because it outsources the production of goods to countries overseas.


In this chapter, efforts were made to explain some of the issues concerning balance of trade and trying to X-ray some of the arguments in favour of trade balances and imbalances with a view to finding answers to some salient questions and making for proper understanding of the concept of trade balances surplus and deficit which is fast becoming a major problem in the world’s economy today which scholars like John Maynard Keynes earlier predicted.

In a bid to finding a solution to this, we shall be discussing from the following sub-headings;

(a). Conditions where trade imbalances may be problematic.

(b). Conditions where trade imbalances may not be problematic.

2.1. Conditions where trade imbalances may be problematic

Those who ignore the effects of long run trade deficits may be confusing David Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage with Adam Smith’s principle of absolute advantage, specifically ignoring the latter. The economist Paul Craig Roberts notes that the comparative advantage principles developed by David Ricardo do not hold where the factors of production are internationally mobile. Global labor arbitrage, a phenomenon described by economist Stephen S. Roach, where one country exploits the cheap labor of another, would be a case of absolute advantage that is not mutually beneficial. Since the stagflation of the 1970s, the U.S. economy has been characterized by slower GDP growth. In 1985, the U.S. began its growing trade deficit with China. Over the long run, nations with trade surpluses tend also to have a savings surplus. The U.S. generally has lower savings rates than its trading partners, which tend to have trade surpluses. Germany, France, Japan, and Canada have maintained higher savings rates than the U.S. over the long run.

Few economists believe that GDP and employment can be dragged down by an over-large deficit over the long run. Others believe that trade deficits are good for the economy. The opportunity cost of a forgone tax base may outweigh perceived gains, especially where artificial currency pegs and manipulations are present to distort trade.

Wealth-producing primary sector jobs in the U.S. such as those in manufacturing and computer software have often been replaced by much lower paying wealth-consuming jobs such as those in retail and government in the service sector when the economy recovered from recessions. Some economists contend that the U.S. is borrowing to fund consumption of imports while accumulating unsustainable amounts of debt.

In 2006, the primary economic concerns focused on: high national debt ($9 trillion), high non-bank corporate debt ($9 trillion), high mortgage debt ($9 trillion), high financial institution debt ($12 trillion), high unfunded Medicare liability ($30 trillion), high unfunded Social Security liability ($12 trillion), high external debt (amount owed to foreign lenders) and a serious deterioration in the United States net international investment position (NIIP) (-24% of GDP), high trade deficits, and a rise in illegal immigration.

These issues have raised concerns among economists and unfunded liabilities were mentioned as a serious problem facing the United States in the President’s 2006 State of the Union address. On June 26, 2009, Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, called for the U.S. to increase its manufacturing base employment to 20% of the workforce, commenting that the U.S. has outsourced too much in some areas and can no longer rely on the financial sector and consumer spending to drive demand.

2.2. Conditions where trade imbalances may not be problematic

Small trade deficits are generally not considered to be harmful to either the importing or exporting economy. However, when a national trade imbalance expands beyond prudence (generally thought to be several [clarification needed] percent of GDP, for several years), adjustments tend to occur. While unsustainable imbalances may persist for long periods (cf, Singapore and New Zealand’s surpluses and deficits, respectively), the distortions likely to be caused by large flows of wealth out of one economy and into another tend to become intolerable.

In simple terms, trade deficits are paid for out of foreign exchange reserves, and may continue until such reserves are depleted. At such a point, the importer can no longer continue to purchase more than is sold abroad. This is likely to have exchange rate implications: a sharp loss of value in the deficit economy’s exchange rate with the surplus economy’s currency will change the relative price of tradable goods, and facilitate a return to balance or (more likely) an over-shooting into surplus the other direction.

More complexly, an economy may be unable to export enough goods to pay for its imports, but is able to find funds elsewhere. Service exports, for example, are more than sufficient to pay for Hong Kong’s domestic goods export shortfall. In poorer countries, foreign aid may fill the gap while in rapidly developing economies a capital account surplus often off-sets a current-account deficit. There are some economies where transfers from nationals working abroad contribute significantly to paying for imports. The Philippines, Bangladesh and Mexico are examples of transfer-rich economies. Finally, a country may partially rebalance by use of quantitative easing at home. This involves a central bank buying back long term government bonds from other domestic financial institutions without reference to the interest rate (which is typically low when QE is called for), seriously increasing the money supply. This debases the local currency but also reduces the debt owed to foreign creditors – effectively “exporting inflation”


Factors that can affect the balance of trade include;

1. The cost of Production, (land, labour, capital, taxes, incentives, etc) in the exporting as well as the importing economy.

2. The cost and availability of raw materials, intermediate goods and inputs.

3. Exchange rate movement.

4. Multi lateral, bi-lateral, and unilateral taxes or restrictions on trade.

5. Non-Tariff barriers such as environmental, Health and safety standards.

6. The availability of adequate foreign exchange with which to pay for imports and prices of goods manufactured at home.

In addition, the trade balance is likely to differ across the business cycle in export led-growth (such as oil and early industrial goods). The balance of trade will improve during an economic expansion.

However, with domestic demand led growth (as in the United States and Australia), the trade balance will worsen at the same stage of the business cycle.

Since the Mid 1980s, the United States has had a growth deficit in tradable goods, especially with Asian nations such as China and Japan which now hold large sums of U.S debts. Interestingly, the U.S has a trade surplus with Australia due to a favourable trade advantage which it has over the latter.


(a) Savings

Economies such as Canada, Japan, and Germany which have savings Surplus Typically runs trade surpluses. China, a High Growth economy has tended to run trade surpluses. A higher savings rate generally corresponds to a trade surplus. Correspondingly, the United States with a lower Savings rate has tended to run high trade deficits, especially with Asian Nations.

(b) Reducing import and increasing Export.

Countries such as the U.S and England are the major proponent of this theory. It is also known as the mercantile theory. A Practice where the government regulates strictly the inflow and outflow from the economy in terms of import and export. One major advantage of this theory is that it makes a nation self sufficient and has a multiplier effect on the overall development of the nation’s entire sector.


Saving as a means of realizing trade surplus is not advisable. For example, If a country who is not saving is trading and multiplying its monetary status, it will in a long run be more beneficial to them and a disadvantage to a country who is solely adopting and relying on the savings policy as the it can appear to be cosmetic in a short term and the effect would be exposed when the activities of the trading nation is yielding profit on investment. This could lead to an Economic Tsunami.


A situation where the export is having more value on the economy of the receiving country just as Frederic Bastiat posited in its example, the principle of reducing imports and increasing export would be an exercise in futility. He cited an example of where a Frenchman, exported French wine and imported British coal, turning a profit. He supposed he was in France, and sent a cask of wine which was worth 50 francs to England. The customhouse would record an export of 50 francs. If, in England, the wine sold for 70 francs (or the pound equivalent), which he then used to buy coal, which he imported into France, and was found to be worth 90 francs in France, he would have made a profit of 40 francs. But the customhouse would say that the value of imports exceeded that of exports and was trade deficit against the ledger of France.

A proper understanding of a topic as this can not be achieved if views from Notable Scholars who have dwelt on it in the past are not examined.

In the light of the foregoing, it will be proper to analyze the views of various scholars who have posited on this topic in a bid to draw a deductive conclusion from their argument to serve a template for drawing a conclusion. This would be explained sequentially as follow;

(a) Frédéric Bastiat on the fallacy of trade deficits.

(b) Adam Smith on trade deficits.

(c) John Maynard Keynes on balance of trade.

(d) Milton Freidman on trade deficit.

(e) Warren Buffet on trade deficit.

3.1. Frédéric Bastiat on the fallacy of trade deficits

The 19th century economist and philosopher Frédéric Bastiat expressed the idea that trade deficits actually were a manifestation of profit, rather than a loss. He proposed as an example to suppose that he, a Frenchman, exported French wine and imported British coal, turning a profit. He supposed he was in France, and sent a cask of wine which was worth 50 francs to England. The customhouse would record an export of 50 francs. If, in England, the wine sold for 70 francs (or the pound equivalent), which he then used to buy coal, which he imported into France, and was found to be worth 90 francs in France, he would have made a profit of 40 francs. But the customhouse would say that the value of imports exceeded that of exports and was trade deficit against the ledger of France. looking at his arguments properly, one would say that it is most adequate to have a trade deficit over a trade surplus. In this Vain, it is glaringly obvious that domestic trade or internal trade could turn a supposed trade surplus into a trade deficit if the cited example of Fredric Bastiat is applied. This was later, in the 20th century, affirmed by economist Milton Friedman.

Internal trade could render an Export value of a nation valueless if not properly handled. A situation where a goods that was initially imported from country 1 into a country 2 has more value in country 2 than its initial export value from country 1, could lead to a situation where the purchasing power would be used to buy more goods in quantity from country 2 who ordinarily would have had a trade surplus by virtue of exporting more in the value of the sum of the initially imported goods from country 1 thereby making the latter to suffer more in export by adding more value to the economy of country 1 that exported ab-initio. The customhouse would say that the value of imports exceeded that of exports and was trade deficit against the ledger of Country 1. But in the real sense of it, Country 1 has benefited trade-wise which is a profit to the economy. In the light of this, a fundamental question arises, ‘would the concept of Profit now be smeared or undermined on the Alter of the concept of Trade surplus or loss? This brings to Mind why Milton Friedman stated ‘that some of the concerns of trade deficit are unfair criticisms in an attempt to push macro- economic policies favourable to exporting industries’. i.e. to give an undue favour or Advantage to the exporting nations to make it seem that it is more viable than the less exporting country in the international Business books of accounts. This could be seen as a cosmetic disclosure as it does not actually state the proper position of things and this could be misleading in nature.

By reduction and absurdum, Bastiat argued that the national trade deficit was an indicator of a successful economy, rather than a failing one. Bastiat predicted that a successful, growing economy would result in greater trade deficits, and an unsuccessful, shrinking economy would result in lower trade deficits. This was later, in the 20th century, affirmed by economist Milton Friedman.

3.2. Adam Smith on trade deficits

Adam Smith who was the sole propounder of the theory of absolute advantage was of the opinion that trade deficit was nothing to worry about and that nothing is more absurd than the Doctrine of ‘Balance of Trade’ and this has been demonstrated by several Economists today. It was argued that If for Example, Japan happens to become the 51st state of the U.S, we would not hear about any trade deficit or imbalance between America and Japan. They further argued that trade imbalance was necessitated by Geographical boundaries amongst nations which make them see themselves as competitors amongst each other in other to gain trade superiority among each other which was not necessary. They further posited that if the boundaries between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, made any difference to the residents of those cities except for those obstacles created by the Government. They posited that if it was necessary to worry about the trade deficit between the United States and Japan, then maybe it was necessary to worry about the deficits that exist among states. It further that stated that if the balance of trade doesn’t matter at the personal, Neighbourhood, or city level, then it does matter at the National level. Then Adams Smith was Right!.

They observed that it was as a result of the economic viability of the U.S that made their purchasing power higher than that its Asian counterpart who was Exporting more and importing less than the U.S and that it wouldn’t be better if the U.S got poorer and less ability to buy products from abroad, further stating that it was the economic problem in Asia that made people buy fewer imports.

“In the foregoing, even upon the principles of the commercial system, it was very unnecessary to lay extraordinary restraints upon the importation of goods from those countries with which the balance of trade is supposed to be disadvantageous. It obvious depicts a picture that nothing, however, can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade, upon which, not only these restraints, but almost all the other regulations of commerce are founded. When two places trade with one another, this [absurd] doctrine supposes that, if the balance be even, neither of them either loses or gains; but if it leans in any degree to one side, that one of them loses and the other gains in proportion to its declension from the exact equilibrium.” (Smith, 1776, book IV, ch. iii, part ii).

3.3. John Maynard Keynes on balance of trade

John Maynard Keynes was the principal author of the ‘KEYNES PLAN’. His view, supported by many Economists and Commentators at the time was that Creditor Nations should be treated as responsible as debtor Nations for Disequilibrium in Exchanges and that both should be under an obligation to bring trade back into a state of balance. Failure for them to do so could have serious economic consequences. In the words of Geoffrey Crowther, ‘if the Economic relationship that exist between two nations are not harmonized fairly close to balance, then there is no set of financial arrangement that Can rescue the world from the impoverishing result of chaos. This view could be seen by some Economists and scholars as very unfair to Creditors as it does not have respect for their status as Creditors based on the fact that there is no clear cut difference between them and the debtors. This idea was perceived by many as an attempt to unclassify Creditors from debtors.

3.4. Milton Freidman on trade deficit

In the 1980s, Milton Friedman who was a Nobel Prize winning Economist, a Professor and the Father of Monetarism contended that some of the concerns of trade deficit are unfair criticisms in an attempt to push macro- economic policies favourable to exporting industries.

He further argued that trade deficit are not necessarily as important as high exports raise the value of currency, reducing aforementioned exports, and vice versa in imports, thus naturally removing trade deficits not due to investment.

This position is a more refined version of the theorem first discovered by David Hume, where he argued that England could not permanently gain from exports, because hoarding gold would make gold more plentiful in England; therefore the price of English goods will soar, making them less attractive exports and making foreign goods more attractive imports. In this way, countries trade balance would balance out.

Friedman believed that deficits would be corrected by free markets as floating currency rates rise or fall with time to discourage imports in favour of the exports. Revising again in the favour of imports as the currency gains strength.

But again there were short comings on the view of Friedman as many economists argued that his arguments were feasible in a short run and not in a long run. The theory says that the trade deficit, as good as debt, is not a problem at all as the debt has to be paid back. They further argued that In the long run as per this theory, the consistent accumulation of a major debt could pose a problem as it may be quite difficult to pay offset the debt easily.

Economists in support for Friedman suggested that when the money drawn out returns to the trade deficit country

3.5. Warren Buffet on trade deficit

The Successful American Business Mogul and Investor Warren Buffet was quoted in the Associated Press (January 20th 2006) as saying that ‘The U.S trade deficit is a bigger threat to the domestic economy than either the federal budget deficit or consumer debt and could lead to political turmoil… Right now, the rest of the world owns $3 trillion more of us than we own of them’. He was further quoted as saying that ‘in effect, our economy has been behaving like an extraordinary rich family that possesses an immense farm. In order to consume 4% more than we produce-that is the trade deficit- we have day by day been both selling pieces of the farm and increasing the mortgage on what we still own.

Buffet proposed a tool called ‘IMPORT CERTIFICATES’ as a solution to the United States problem and ensure balanced trade. He was further quoted as saying; ‘The Rest of the world owns a staggering $2.5 trillion more of the U.S than we own of the other countries. Some of this $2.5 trillion is invested in claim checks- U.S bonds, both governmental and private- and some in such assets as property and equity securities.

Import Certificate is a proposed mechanism to implement ‘balanced Trade’, and eliminate a country’s trade deficit. The idea was to create a market for transferable import certificate (ICs) that would represent the right to import a certain dollar amount of goods into the United States. The plan was that the Transferable ICs would be issued to US exporters in an amount equal to the dollar amount of the goods they export and they could only be utilized once. They could be sold or traded to importers who must purchase them in order to legally import goods to the U.S. The price of ICs are set by free market forces, and therefore dependent on the balance between entrepreneurs’ willingness to pay the ICs market price for importing goods into the USA and the global volume of goods exported from the US (Supply and Demand).