What is Balance of Trade (BOT)?

Balance of trade (BOT) is the difference between the value of a country's imports聽and聽exports for a聽given period and is the largest component of a country's balance of payments (BOP).

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What's the Balance of Trade?

Key Takeaways

  • Balance of trade (BOT) is the difference between the value of a country's imports and聽exports for a聽given period and is the largest component of a country's balance of payments (BOP).
  • A country that imports more goods and services聽than it exports in terms of value has a trade deficit while a country that exports more goods and services than it imports has a trade surplus.
  • In 2019, Germany had the largest trade surplus followed by Japan and China while the United States had the largest trade deficit, even with the ongoing trade war with China, beating out the United Kingdom and India.

Understanding Balance of Trade (BOT)

Economists use the BOT to measure the relative strength of a country's economy. The balance of trade is also referred to as the trade balance or the international trade balance. A country that imports more goods and services聽than it exports in terms of value has a trade deficit. Conversely, a country that exports more goods and services than it imports has a trade surplus. The formula for calculating the BOT can be simplified as the total value of imports minus the total value of exports.聽

There are countries where it is almost certain that a trade deficit will occur. For example, the United States has had a trade deficit since 1976 because of its dependency on oil imports and consumer products. Conversely, China, a country that produces and exports many of the world's consumable goods, has recorded a trade surplus since 1995.

A trade surplus or deficit聽is not always聽a viable indicator of an economy's health, and it must be considered in the context聽of the business cycle and other economic indicators. For example, in a recession, countries prefer聽to export more to聽create聽jobs and demand in the economy. In times of economic聽expansion, countries prefer to import more to promote聽price competition, which limits inflation.

In 2019, Germany had the largest trade surplus by current account balance with Japan and China coming in second and third. Conversely, the United States had the largest trade deficit, even with the ongoing trade war with China, with the United Kingdom and India coming in second and third. (For related reading, see "Which Factors Can Influence a Country's Balance of Trade?")

Calculating Balance of Trade (BOT)

For example, if the United States imported $1.5聽trillion in goods and services in 2017, but exported only $1 trillion聽in goods and services to other countries, then the United States had a聽trade balance of -$500聽billion, or a $500聽billion trade deficit.

$1.5 trillion in imports - $1 trillion in exports = $500 billion trade deficit

In effect, a聽country with a large聽trade deficit聽borrows money聽to pay for its goods and services, while a country with a large聽trade surplus聽lends money to聽deficit聽countries. In some cases, the trade balance may correlate聽to a聽country's political and economic stability because it reflects the amount of foreign聽investment聽in that country.

Debit items include imports, foreign aid, domestic spending abroad and domestic investments abroad. Credit items include exports, foreign spending in the domestic economy and foreign investments in the domestic economy. By subtracting the credit items from the debit items, economists arrive at a trade deficit or trade surplus for a given country over the period of a month, quarter or year.