Financing the U.S. Trade Deficit Page: 4 of 19
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Financing the U.S. Trade Deficit
By standard convention, the balance of payments accounts are based on a double-entry
bookkeeping system. As a result, each transaction that is entered into the accounts as a credit must
have a corresponding debit and vice versa. This means that a surplus or deficit in one part of the
accounts necessarily will be offset by a deficit or surplus, respectively, in another account so that,
overall, the accounts are in balance. This convention also means that a deficit in one account,
such as the merchandise trade account, is not necessarily the same as a debt.' The trade deficit can
become a debt equivalent depending on how the deficit is financed and the expectations of those
who hold the offsetting dollar-denominated U.S. assets. The balance of payments accounts are
divided into three main sections: the current account, which includes the exports and imports of
goods and services and personal and government transfer payments; the capital account, which
includes such capital transfers as international debt forgiveness; and the financial account, which
includes official transactions in financial assets and private transactions in financial assets and
direct investment in businesses and real estate.
When the basic structure of the balance of payments was established, merchandise trade
transactions dominated the accounts. Financial transactions recorded in the capital accounts
generally reflected the payments and receipts of funds that corresponded to the importing and
exporting of goods and services. As a result, the capital accounts generally represented
"accommodating" transactions, or financial transactions associated directly with the buying and
selling of goods and services. During this early period, exchange rates between currencies were
fixed, and private capital flows, such as foreign investment, were heavily regulated so that nearly
all international flows of funds were associated with merchandise trade transactions and with
some limited government transactions.
Since the 1970s, however, private capital flows have grown markedly as countries have
liberalized their rules governing overseas investing and as nations have adopted a system of
floating exchange rates, where the rates are set by market forces. Floating exchange rates have
spurred demand for the dollar. The dollar also is sought for investment purposes as it has become
a vehicle itself for investment and speculation and it serves as a maj or trade invoicing currency.
This means that the balance of payments record not only the accommodating flows of capital
which correspond to imports and exports of goods and services, but also autonomous flows of
capital that are induced by a broad range of economic factors that are unrelated directly to the
trading of merchandise goods.
Capital Flows and the Dollar
Liberalized capital flows and floating exchange rates have greatly expanded the amount of
autonomous capital flows between countries. These capital transactions are undertaken in
response to commercial incentives or political considerations that are independent of the overall
balance of payments or of particular accounts. As a result of these transactions, national
economies have become more closely linked, the process some refer to as "globalization." The
data in Table 1 provide selected indicators of the relative sizes of the various capital markets in
1 For additional information about the causes of the U.S. trade deficit, see CRS Report RL31032, The U.S. Trade
Deficit: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Options, by Craig K. Elwell.
Congressional Research Service
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Financing the U.S. Trade Deficit, report, November 16, 2012; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc811508/m1/4/: accessed December 15, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.