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Multiparty trade system

In any multi-party trade system, there will always be imbalances, deficits or surpluses in the monetary value of goods and services traded.

These imports, if not made up for in an equal number of exports, are "paid for" by sending something else abroad - usually paper assets, such as stocks and bonds.  

The purchase of U.S. dollar securities is the way most countries have compensated for the imbalances in trade with the United States.  

  • Many countries, in Asia and the Middle East especially, have used their earnings from exports to purchase trillions of dollars' worth of U.S. Treasury bonds to use as a store against future uncertainties - or to buy U.S. goods and services in the future.

What gets spent never stays in one place

In the interconnected global economy, what gets spent never stays in one place. What India earns from its many call centers can be spent on South Korean televisions, and what South Korea earns from its exports can be spent on Brazilian chickens or American tractors.  In the end, it all adds up.

Deciding to start a trade war because you run a deficit against any one country is like saying you want to punish the country that sells you what you really want.

Trade deficits and Trade surpluses

The economic terms used by most politicians when beating the drums for trade wars are trade deficits and trade surpluses, which focus mainly on the trade in physical goods.  

But many countries are making more and more money exporting services like 

  • banking
  • entertainment, 
  • tourism, and 
  • technology platforms.  
A few lucky countries, such as U.S., have the privilege of receiving massive amounts of money every year in the form of investments from abroad.

Trade Balance:  Current account is balanced by the country's capital account

The obsession with trade deficits is misplaced because the deficit and surplus in goods and services is offset by monetary transfers.  

Most economists, therefore, look at the total trade in goods and services, referred to as the current account, which also includes such financial transfers as money sent home by citizens working abroad and interest paid on foreign debt.  

This current account is balanced by the country's capital account, which adds up all investments - mainly international purchases and sales of financial assets.  

These two measures, when added together, always add up to zeroOne balances out the other.  Which is why the total measure of trade is referred to as the trade balance.

The benefits of free trade outweigh the disadvantages

Politicians who speak of "winning" and "losing" in trade don't understand that all trade in goods and services is balanced by monetary transfers moving in the opposite direction.  

Essentially, all the global trade in goods and services and flows of money between countries add up to zero, but trade is not a zero-sum game, where one country's loss is necessarily another country's gain.

The benefits of free trade outweigh the disadvantages  

  • While free trade does expose a country, and its workers, to foreign competition - which can lead to layoffs and idle factories - putting up barriers to imports from abroad can destroy far more jobs as the rest of the world's economies respond with trade barriers of their own.


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