Balance of Trade: Favorable Versus Unfavorable

The Danger When Imports Exceed Imports

Model scales showing balance of assets, including automobiles and oil barrels

Matthew Ward / Getty Images

The balance of trade is the value of a country's exports minus its imports. It's the biggest component of the balance of payments that measures all international transactions. It's easy to measure since all goods and many services pass through the customs office.

The trade balance is also the biggest part of the current account. It measures a country's net income earned on international assets. It's the trade balance plus any other payments across borders.

Key Takeaways

  • A positive trade balance (surplus) is when exports exceed imports.
  • A negative trade balance (deficit) is when exports are less than imports.
  • Use the balance of trade to compare a country’s economy to its trading partners.
  • A trade surplus is harmful only when the government uses protectionism.
  • A trade deficit can be beneficial to countries that import heavily and simultaneously invest in economic development.

How to Calculate It

A country's trade balance equals the value of its exports minus its imports.

The formula is X - M = TB, where:

X = Exports

M = Imports

TB = Trade Balance

Exports are goods or services made domestically and sold to a foreigner. That includes a pair of jeans you mail to a friend overseas. It could also be signage a corporate headquarter transfers to its foreign office. If the foreigner pays for it, then it's an export.

Imports are goods and services bought by a country's residents but made in a foreign country. It includes souvenirs purchased by tourists traveling abroad. Services provided while traveling, such as transportation, hotels, and meals, are also imports. It doesn't matter whether the company that makes the good or service is a domestic or foreign company. If it was purchased or made in a foreign country, it's an import.

When a country's exports are greater than its imports, it has a trade surplus. When exports are less than imports, it has a trade deficit. On the surface, a surplus is preferable to a deficit. However, this is an overly simplistic assumption. A trade deficit is not inherently bad, as it can be indicative of a strong economy. Moreover, when coupled with prudent investment decisions, a deficit can lead to stronger economic growth in the future.

Favorable Trade Balance

Many countries implement trade policies that encourage a trade surplus. These nations prefer to sell more products and receive more capital for their residents, believing this translates into a higher standard of living and a competitive advantage for domestic companies. For some, this holds true, especially over the short term.

Unfortunately, to maintain a trade surplus, some nations resort to trade protectionism. They defend domestic industries by levying tariffs, quotas, or subsidies on imports. Soon, other countries react with retaliatory, protectionist measures, and a trade war ensues. Inevitably, this results in higher costs for consumers, reduced international commerce, and diminished economic conditions for all nations.

Unfavorable Trade Balance

Sometimes, a trade deficit can be unfavorable for a nation, especially one whose economy relies heavily on the export of raw materials. Generally, this type of nation imports a lot of consumer products. As a result, its domestic businesses don't gain the experience needed to make value-added products. Rather, its economy becomes increasingly dependent on global commodity prices, which can be highly volatile.


Some countries are so opposed to trade deficits that they adopt mercantilism, an extreme form of nationalism that seeks to achieve and maintain a trade surplus at all costs.

Mercantilism advocates protectionist measures, such as tariffs and import quotas. While these measures can prove effective in increasing the balance of trade, they typically lead to retaliatory acts of protectionism, which result in higher costs for consumers, reduced international trade, and diminished economic growth.

Difference Between Trade Balance and Balance of Payments

The balance of trade is the most significant component of the balance of payments. The balance of payments adds international investments plus net income made on those investments to the trade balance.

A country can run a trade deficit but still have a surplus in its balance of payments. A large surplus in investments could offset a trade deficit. That can only occur if the financial account runs a huge surplus. For example, foreigners could invest heavily in a country's assets. They could buy real estate, own oil drilling operations, or invest in local businesses.

The capital account records assets that produce future income, such as copyrights. As a result, it would rarely run a surplus large enough to offset a trade deficit.

How the Trade Balance Fits Into the Balance of Payments

Balance of Payments

  1. Current Account
    Current Account Deficit
    U.S. Current Account Deficit
  2. Trade Balance
    Imports and Exports
  3. U.S. Imports and Exports
  4. U.S. Imports
    U.S. Imports by Year for Top 5 Countries
  5. U.S. Exports
  6. Trade Deficit
  7. The U.S. Trade Deficit
    U.S. Trade Deficit by Country
  8. U.S. Trade Deficit With China
  9. Capital Account
  10. Financial Account

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When did the U.S. stop having a surplus in international trade?

It was 1991 when the U.S. last had a surplus trade balance. The first two quarters of that year had a trade surplus. You have to go back to 1982 to find another quarter with a surplus.

Which country has the highest trade surplus?

In 2020, China had the highest trade surplus by dollar value ($369.67 billion). Germany came in second ($222.06 billion), followed by Singapore ($108.52 billion), Ireland ($97 billion), and the Netherlands ($95.33 billion).

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Corporate Finance Institute. “Balance of Trade (BOT).”

  2. Library of Economics and Liberty. ”Mercantilism.”

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Balance on Current Account (Discontinued)."

  4. The World Bank. "Net Trade in Goods and Services (BoP, Current U.S.$)."

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