Balance of Payments/Overview

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Balance of Payments[edit]

The balance of payments, also known as balance of international payments and abbreviated BoP or BP, of a country is the record of all economic transactions between the residents of the country and the rest of the world in a particular period (over a quarter of a year or more commonly over a year). These transactions are made by individuals, firms and government bodies. Thus the balance of payments includes all external visible and non-visible transactions of a country . It represents a summation of country's current demand and supply of the claims on foreign currencies and of foreign claims on its currency.[1]

These transactions include payments for the country's exports and imports of goods, services, financial capital, and financial transfers. It is prepared in a single currency, typically the domestic currency for the country concerned. Sources of funds for a nation, such as exports or the receipts of loans and investments, are recorded as positive or surplus items. Uses of funds, such as for imports or to invest in foreign countries, are recorded as negative or deficit items.[2]

When all components of the BOP accounts are included they must sum to zero with no overall surplus or deficit. For example, if a country is importing more than it exports, its trade balance will be in deficit, but the shortfall will have to be counterbalanced in other ways – such as by funds earned from its foreign investments, by running down central bank reserves or by receiving loans from other countries.

While the overall BOP accounts will always balance when all types of payments are included, imbalances are possible on individual elements of the BOP, such as the current account, the capital account excluding the central bank's reserve account, or the sum of the two. Imbalances in the latter sum can result in surplus countries accumulating wealth, while deficit nations become increasingly indebted.[3]

The term balance of payments often refers to this sum: a country's balance of payments is said to be in surplus (equivalently, the balance of payments is positive) by a specific amount if sources of funds (such as export goods sold and bonds sold) exceed uses of funds (such as paying for imported goods and paying for foreign bonds purchased) by that amount. There is said to be a balance of payments deficit (the balance of payments is said to be negative) if the former are less than the latter. A BOP surplus (or deficit) is accompanied by an accumulation (or de-cumulation) of foreign exchange reserves by the central bank.

Under a fixed exchange rate system, the central bank accommodates those flows by buying up any net inflow of funds into the country or by providing foreign currency funds to the foreign exchange market to match any international outflow of funds, thus preventing the funds flows from affecting the exchange rate between the country's currency and other currencies. Then the net change per year in the central bank's foreign exchange reserves is sometimes called the balance of payments surplus or deficit. Alternatives to a fixed exchange rate system include a managed float where some changes of exchange rates are allowed, or at the other extreme a purely floating exchange rate (also known as a purely flexible exchange rate). With a pure float the central bank does not intervene at all to protect or devalue its currency, allowing the rate to be set by the market, and the central bank's foreign exchange reserves do not change, and the balance of payments is always zero.[1]

Components of Balance of Payments[edit]

The main components of the BoP are namely Current account and Capital account[4]. The current account shows the net amount a country is earning if it is in surplus, or spending if it is in deficit. It is the sum of the balance of trade (net earnings on exports minus payments for imports), factor income (earnings on foreign investments minus payments made to foreign investors) and cash transfers. It is called the current account as it covers transactions in the "here and now" – those that don't give rise to future claims.

The capital account records the net change in ownership of foreign assets. It includes the reserve account (the foreign exchange market operations of a nation's central bank), along with loans and investments between the country and the rest of world (but not the future interest payments and dividends that the loans and investments yield; those are earnings and will be recorded in the current account). If a country purchases more foreign assets for cash than the assets it sells for cash to other countries, the capital account is said to be negative or in deficit.

The term "capital account" is also used in the narrower sense that excludes central bank foreign exchange market operations. Expressed with the broader meaning for the capital account, the BOP identity states that any current account surplus will be balanced by a capital account deficit of equal size – or alternatively a current account deficit will be balanced by a corresponding capital account surplus.

The broadly defined capital account consists of pure capital account and reserve account. When the current account is in surplus, the amount is taken and put in to reserve account, so the capital account shows net negative amount. When the current account is in deficit, the deficit is managed by  incoming capital flows in terms of FDI/FII or managed through reserve account, therefore showing the capital account as net positive.[5]

Current Account + Broadly Defined Capital Account (Including Reserve Account) + Balancing Item = 0

The balancing item, which may be positive or negative, is simply an amount that accounts for any statistical errors and assures that the current and capital accounts sum to zero. By the principles of double entry accounting, an entry in the current account gives rise to an entry in the capital account, and in aggregate the two accounts automatically balance. A balance isn't always reflected in reported figures for the current and capital accounts, which might, for example, report a surplus for both accounts, but when this happens it always means something has been missed – most commonly, the operations of the country's central bank – and what has been missed is recorded in the statistical discrepancy term (the balancing item).

A common source of confusion arises from whether or not the reserve account entry, part of the capital account, is included in the BOP accounts. The reserve account records the activity of the nation's central bank. If it is excluded, the BOP can be in surplus (which implies the central bank is building up foreign exchange reserves) or in deficit (which implies the central bank is running down its reserves or borrowing from abroad).

BoP Surplus (Deficit) = Current Account + Narrowly Defined Capital Account (Excluding Reserve Account)

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) use a particular set of definitions for the BOP accounts, which is also used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the United Nations System of National Accounts (SNA).

The main difference in the IMF's terminology is that it uses the term "financial account" to capture transactions that would under alternative definitions be recorded in the capital account. The IMF uses the term capital account to designate a subset of transactions that, according to other usage, form a small part of the overall capital account.

The IMF separates these transactions out to form an additional top level division of the BOP accounts. Expressed with the IMF definition, the BOP identity can be written:

Current Account + Financial Account + Capital Account + Balancing Item = 0

The IMF uses the term current account with the same meaning as that used by other organizations, although it has its own names for its three leading sub-divisions, which are:

  • The goods and services account (the overall trade balance)
  • The primary income account (factor income such as from loans and investments)
  • The secondary income account (transfer payments)

Imbalances in BoP[edit]

One of the three fundamental functions of an international monetary system is to provide mechanisms to correct imbalances. Broadly speaking, there are three possible methods to correct BOP imbalances, though in practice a mixture including some degree of at least the first two methods tends to be used. These methods are adjustments of exchange rates; adjustment of a nations internal prices along with its levels of demand; and rules based adjustment. Improving productivity and hence competitiveness can also help, as can increasing the desirability of exports through other means, though it is generally assumed a nation is always trying to develop and sell its products to the best of its abilities.[6]

Re-balancing by changing the exchange rate[edit]

An upwards shift in the value of a nation's currency relative to others will make a nation's exports less competitive and make imports cheaper and so will tend to correct a current account surplus. It also tends to make investment flows into the capital account less attractive so will help with a surplus there too. Conversely a downward shift in the value of a nation's currency makes it more expensive for its citizens to buy imports and increases the competitiveness of their exports, thus helping to correct a deficit (though the solution often doesn't have a positive impact immediately due to the Marshall–Lerner condition).

Exchange rates can be adjusted by government in a rules based or managed currency regime, and when left to float freely in the market they also tend to change in the direction that will restore balance. When a country is selling more than it imports, the demand for its currency will tend to increase as other countries ultimately need the selling country's currency to make payments for the exports. The extra demand tends to cause a rise of the currency's price relative to others. When a country is importing more than it exports, the supply of its own currency on the international market tends to increase as it tries to exchange it for foreign currency to pay for its imports, and this extra supply tends to cause the price to fall. BOP effects are not the only market influence on exchange rates however, they are also influenced by differences in national interest rates and by speculation.[7]

Re-balancing by adjusting internal prices and demand[edit]

When exchange rates are fixed by a rigid gold standard, or when imbalances exist between members of a currency union such as the Eurozone, the standard approach to correct imbalances is by making changes to the domestic economy. To a large degree, the change is optional for the surplus country, but compulsory for the deficit country. In the case of a gold standard, the mechanism is largely automatic. When a country has a favourable trade balance, as a consequence of selling more than it buys it will experience a net inflow of gold. The natural effect of this will be to increase the money supply, which leads to inflation and an increase in prices, which then tends to make its goods less competitive and so will decrease its trade surplus. However the nation has the option of taking the gold out of economy (sterilising the inflationary effect) thus building up a hoard of gold and retaining its favourable balance of payments. On the other hand, if a country has an adverse BOP it will experience a net loss of gold, which will automatically have a deflationary effect, unless it chooses to leave the gold standard. Prices will be reduced, making its exports more competitive, and thus correcting the imbalance. While the gold standard is generally considered to have been successful up until 1914, correction by deflation to the degree required by the large imbalances that arose after WWI proved painful, with deflationary policies contributing to prolonged unemployment but not re-establishing balance. Apart from the US most former members had left the gold standard by the mid-1930s.[8]

A possible method for surplus countries such as Germany to contribute to re-balancing efforts when exchange rate adjustment is not suitable, is to increase its level of internal demand (i.e. its spending on goods). While a current account surplus is commonly understood as the excess of earnings over spending, an alternative expression is that it is the excess of savings over investment. That is:

where CA = current account, NS = national savings (private plus government sector), NI = national investment.

If a nation is earning more than it spends the net effect will be to build up savings, except to the extent that those savings are being used for investment. If consumers can be encouraged to spend more instead of saving; or if the government runs a fiscal deficit to offset private savings; or if the corporate sector divert more of their profits to investment, then any current account surplus will tend to be reduced. However, in 2009 Germany amended its constitution to prohibit running a deficit greater than 0.35% of its GDP and calls to reduce its surplus by increasing demand have not been welcome by officials, adding to fears that the 2010s will not be an easy decade for the eurozone. In their April 2010 world economic outlook report, the IMF presented a study showing how with the right choice of policy options governments can transition out of a sustained current account surplus with no negative effect on growth and with a positive impact on unemployment.

Rules based re-balancing mechanisms[edit]

Nations can agree to fix their exchange rates against each other, and then correct any imbalances that arise by rules based and negotiated exchange rate changes and other methods. The Bretton Woods system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates was an example of a rules based system. John Maynard Keynes, one of the architects of the Bretton Woods system had wanted additional rules to encourage surplus countries to share the burden of re-balancing, as he argued that they were in a stronger position to do so and as he regarded their surpluses as negative externalities imposed on the global economy. Keynes suggested that traditional balancing mechanisms should be supplemented by the threat of confiscation of a portion of excess revenue if the surplus country did not choose to spend it on additional imports. However his ideas were not accepted by the Americans at the time. In 2008 and 2009, American economist Paul Davidson had been promoting his revamped form of Keynes's plan as a possible solution to global imbalances which in his opinion would expand growth all round without the downside risk of other re-balancing methods.[9]

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