The tendency of the USA to have a negative balance of trade (more accurately known as a negative balance on current account) played a prominent role in the recent U.S. presidential campaign. Donald Trump criticized this tendency repeatedly and promised that if elected he would take various actions to reduce or eliminate it. Like most members of the public, Trump views this negative balance as a highly undesirable, economically damaging condition. Despite the prominence of discussions of the negative balance of trade in recent times, however, it is likely that few people really understand much if anything about the system of international payments accounts from which it derives.
Fortunately, interested parties can learn what they need to know about the international payments accounts by studying the documents that accompany the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s presentation of the data or by reading almost daily commentary on this topic by first-rate economists. My own go-to source of sound economic interpretation of this subject is the commentary by Donald J. Boudreaux at the blog Cafe Hayek.
I place the balance of international payments data in the class of statistics for which the world would have been a happier place had the data never been devised, popularized (in a rough way), and used by policy makers. This last aspect is the crux of the matter because the balance-of-trade data in particular can scarcely help but serve as a rationale for pernicious policies, such as export subsidies and tariffs, quotas, and other official restrictions on imports. In short, the data help the government establish and maintain policies that enrich the privileged few at the expense of the unconnected many, including consumers in general and producers who rely on imported raw materials and components, as many do these days.
Although the topic may appear daunting, the essence of the matter is utterly simple. As a fair approximation, each international transaction, whether it be buying, selling, borrowing, or lending across a national border involves a willing party on each side—importers want to purchase goods from sellers abroad, lenders want to lend to borrowers abroad, and so forth. Each party to the transactions expects to benefit by entering into it. In a sane and just world, that would be the end of the matter. People would simply be left alone to make the transactions they wish to make in anticipation of benefiting thereby. If each transactor benefits, how can the nation as a whole suffer?