trade balance

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Presentation of the trade balance in account form.
Classification of the trade balance in the balance of payments.

In the national accounts , the trade balance relates to foreign trade , i.e. the cross-border movement of goods within a country. It is a computational comparison of all goods imports (imports) and goods exports (exports) of an economy within a certain period of time and is therefore also called the foreign trade balance, the balance of goods or the balance of goods. The imbalance of a country's trade balance results in payment claims or obligations to foreign countries.

The trade balance is at the top of the current account and is seen as its most important sub-balance. As part of the current account - and thus also part of the balance of payments - it provides an important basis for economic policy decisions and measures.


The concept of the trade balance found its first scientific approaches as early as the 17th century under the teachings of mercantilism . Special attention was paid to the accumulation of precious metals and money during this period . It was less the volume of these means of payment than the active handling and use of them in foreign trade that was studied and discussed. Trade was seen as the origin of the people's prosperity , with the result that the balance of trade received steadily increasing attention over time. The documents of the English merchant Thomas Mun are particularly popular in this context.

Structure and forms of the trade balance

Representation of the trade balance surplus or deficit in account form
Country comparison of net exports

The trade balance, which is mainly presented in staggered form, is divided into debit and credit . Goods exports are recorded on the debit side and imports of goods on the credit side. The publication takes place according to general / special trade , the breakdown primarily according to product groups (e.g. food, raw materials, finished goods) or countries or regions and is available as a monthly or annual report. The trade balance can basically have three forms: balanced, positive or negative trade balance.

Balanced trade balance (export = import)

If the exports correspond exactly to the imports in terms of value, one speaks of a balanced trade balance. However, due to the mostly brisk trade in goods between the countries, such a balance is highly unlikely.

Positive trade balance (export> import)

If the total of exports (exports of goods) exceeds the total of imports (imports of goods), this results in an active or positive trade balance. This condition is also known as the trade surplus . If the export income is higher than the import expenditure, there is a credit balance. This goes into the graduated balance of payments with a positive sign . A trade surplus leads to a capital export in connection with the current account. This is also known as positive net export . The economic effects are described in the section Economic Effects: Trade Balance Surplus.

Negative trade balance (export <import)

In the opposite case, i.e. when imports exceed exports, one speaks of a passive or negative trade balance or a trade balance deficit . The resulting debit balance is then entered into the balance of payments with a negative sign. The import expenditures are higher here than the export revenues. A trade deficit corresponds to a capital import, which is also known as a negative net export .



The trade balance is calculated by the Federal Statistical Office. It represents the difference between the exports and imports of a country. The foreign trade balance (also called the foreign trade balance, export or import surplus) flows into the current account of the Deutsche Bundesbank. As part of the balance of payments statistics, the Deutsche Bundesbank calculates the so-called "trade in goods" from foreign trade. The trade in goods according to the methodology of the balance of payments statistics is made up of the sum of foreign trade (as defined by the official foreign trade statistics), the additions to foreign trade and the net export of goods in transit trade and the export and import of non-currency gold.

The item “supplements to foreign trade” serves as a mathematical transition from the foreign trade to the balance of payments concept. While the foreign trade statistics, as described above, are based on the border crossing concept, the transfer of ownership between residents and foreigners is decisive for the balance of payments. The supplements on foreign trade contain both additions and deductions to foreign trade. Flows of goods that are taken into account in the foreign trade statistics but not in the balance of payments lead to a deduction from foreign trade. This includes, for example, the movement of goods in connection with processing services. Correspondingly, assignments to foreign trade must be made, provided that the change of ownership between the German trader and the foreigner has not led to a border crossing. The additions to foreign trade result from the balance of additions and deductions to foreign trade.

Furthermore, the value of goods is assessed in the foreign trade statistics at the German border (export fob, import cif), while goods are shown in the balance of payments with their value at the border of the exporting country (export fob, import cif). Therefore, the transport and insurance costs (cif costs of import) included in the import value of the foreign trade statistics must be deducted and, in the case of a foreign carrier, allocated to the corresponding service items.


In Austria usually referred to as external trade statistics trade balance is from the Statistics Austria created (Statistics Austria) and made public and will also in the publications of the balance of payments Austrian National Bank presents. As in Germany, the Austrian data collection is carried out using two methods in three modules (Ex- / Intrastat and correction). Statistics Austria records the movement of goods with third countries in the Extrastat. The survey is carried out by reporting to the customs authorities. Flows of goods within the EU are listed in Intrastat . The determination takes place via the direct survey of companies which - depending on the threshold value - are obliged to submit detailed monthly reports. The correction is also made here (from a national perspective) with regard to indirect imports and exports (merchanting), exclusion of contract processing and attribution of currency gold. The presentation of the trade balance is based on special trade.


In the Swiss Confederation, the Federal Customs Administration (FCA) is responsible for both compiling and publishing foreign trade statistics. Although Switzerland is located in Central Europe and is enclosed by four euro countries, it is not a member of the European Union. Switzerland therefore does not keep two trade statistics (intra / extra trade), but rather obtains all of its data from its customs declarations . The special trade concept is pursued, which covers all goods with a value of 1,000 Swiss francs (CHF) or more and over 1,000 kg (m / l / item). This includes processing traffic, but not transit and warehouse traffic. The Swiss survey area not only includes Swiss territory with the exception of the Samnaun and Sampuoir valleys, but also the Principality of Liechtenstein and the German exclave of Büsingen .


The trade balances of two countries may differ due to different recording and valuation methods. The German export values ​​to the USA seldom correspond to the USA import values ​​from Germany. These differences are due to different causes and can increase with increasing distance and the level of detail of the study countries.

Partner country

Different partner country information is one of the most common and most important causes of mirror image differences. In the case of exports, the last country of destination in which the goods are used or consumed or treated or processed must generally be specified as the partner country. In the case of imports, German statistics generally show the country of origin of the goods in which they were completely extracted or manufactured. The country of dispatch is also recorded, i.e. the country from which the goods were delivered directly to Germany and which may differ from the country of origin.

When comparing the foreign trade data of two countries, it is important to note the delimitation of the partner countries. A comparison between the exports and the imports of two countries can be different, depending on whether the import figures are based on the concept of the country of origin or the country of dispatch. The “Rotterdam Effect”: Goods from the USA are released for free circulation in the EU at the external border of the European Union (EU) in the Netherlands and then delivered to Germany. In this case, in addition to an import from the USA, the Netherlands also records an intra-EU shipment to Germany, while Germany reports the import of goods from the USA with the country of dispatch, the Netherlands, in accordance with the country of origin concept. In this case, the foreign trade results of the Netherlands and Germany are only comparable if German imports are used according to the consignment country concept. This is why we speak of the so-called “Rotterdam effect” when the import, for example of exotic fruits, is shown according to the country of dispatch, the Netherlands. Mirror-image differences also arise if the exporter does not know at the time of his declaration for which country the goods are ultimately destined and therefore specifies a provisional country of destination. This is then included in the export data, while the importer in the final country of destination knows the country of origin and this is proven in the national statistics.

A kind of “Rotterdam effect” (indirect export) can also occur if, for example, a German company sells goods to a customer in the USA, which are initially brought from Germany to Rotterdam (Netherlands) and shipped from there. If these goods are only transferred to the EU export procedure in Rotterdam, an Intrastat declaration for intra-EU export to the Netherlands and an intra-EU import declaration there must first be submitted in Germany, since the statistical recording of exports to the third country is only possible in the Netherlands. Differences can arise in the context of recording foreign trade between Germany and the USA. If, on the other hand, the EU export procedure already begins in Germany by submitting the export declaration to German customs, which is the normal case, the Intrastat declaration does not apply and there is no risk of mirror differences in this regard.


The Incoterms FOB and CIF are used to assess imports and exports .

free on board (FOB)
records the value of the goods free customs border of the exporting country. That is the price of the goods ex works, including the transport, insurance and loading costs incurred up to the customs border of the exporting country.
cost, insurance, freight (CIF)
In addition to FOB, it also includes the transport and insurance costs between the customs borders of the exporting and importing country.

Foreign trade
statistics The statistical value is always the cause of differences in mirror image comparisons. In accordance with international standards, the value of the goods is based on the border crossing value (statistical value). In most countries, as in the European Union (EU), imports are classified as “Cost Insurance Freight Value” (CIF; value of goods at the German external border, including transport costs from the country of origin to there) and exports with the “Free -on-Board-Wert "(FOB; value of goods at the German external border including the transport costs up to there). The resulting mirror-image differences in value roughly correspond to the transport and insurance costs incurred and become greater the further away the partner country is from Germany.

balance With regard to the types of assessment, a distinction must be made between monthly and annual versions. In Germany, exports are generally valued at FOB, whereas imports are recorded at FOB (annual version) or CIF (monthly version) values, depending on the type of representation. In the monthly version, this means that in the cross-border trade balance comparison, the export value of country A does not correspond to the import value of country B. In order to avoid this discrepancy and in accordance with the rules of the International Monetary Fund , the Deutsche Bundesbank shows both the import and export values ​​at FOB in the annual statement. The Austrian National Bank proceeds in the same way with the annual preparation of the Austrian balance of payments. This is subjected to an aggregated calculation and imports are shown as FOB as in Germany. In the foreign trade statistics of STATISTIK AUSTRIA, exports to FOB and imports are always shown to CIF and are not corrected in either the monthly or annual reports. This creates asymmetries between the trade balance according to the Austrian National Bank and STATISTIK AUSTRIA. In Switzerland, exports to FOB and imports to CIF are reported.

This means that the transport and insurance costs between the customs borders do not always appear in the annual version of the trade balance, but are assigned to the service balance depending on the type of representation and are viewed as a foreign service . Although this means a greater effort - due to the often difficult information acquisition of the exact costs - it also enables a better international comparison. The balance of the trade balance - as well as the balance of services - and its comparability therefore depends on which assessment methods are used and how far apart the partner countries are. The balance of the current account, however, is not affected. When valuing the goods, however, there are also differences in terms of customs and tax registration and the conversion methods for currencies. The value of goods is booked within the EU, including Switzerland, without customs duties and taxes; Currencies in Germany are converted at the exchange rate at the time of reporting; Switzerland values ​​the goods at the exchange rate on the previous day of the declaration.

Temporal allocation

Due to transport times or delayed reports, it can happen that a foreign trade transaction is assigned to different reporting periods, including years, in the countries involved. Furthermore, differing update and revision cycles in the participating countries can lead to differences in the foreign trade results during the year.


For the treatment of "special movements of goods", for example, in the EU it is stipulated that in the case of ships and aircraft, crossing the border is not the point of contact for export or import, but rather the change in economic ownership between a natural or foreign resident in Germany legal person (company). This may be regulated differently in partner countries outside the EU. There may also be different survey methods for electricity, the “movement of which” is difficult to record. This also applies, if necessary, to the recording of trade in licenses or waste.

In the EU, only standard software is taken into account as a commodity in the foreign trade statistics, while software specially created for a customer requirement counts as a service and is therefore not included in the foreign trade statistics. This treatment of software in third countries can differ from the methodology used in the EU.

Certain movements of goods (e.g. repairs) may not be exempt from statistical reporting, unlike in Germany in the partner country.

The Intrastat system is based on a threshold system which exempts the majority of intra-trade European companies (especially small and medium-sized companies) from the obligation to report intra-trade statistics. The coverage of trade after the thresholds have been applied may vary depending on the Member State and direction of trade. In addition, the number of dispatches in one country is usually higher than the inverse number of incoming goods in the partner country. This can be explained with the different company structure on the import and export side. There are few large companies that produce and export goods, as a rule, there are many small and medium-sized companies in the importing country that buy and import these goods. It follows from this: While the companies in the exporting country exceed the threshold limit, smaller companies in the importing country fall below the threshold limit and are therefore not required to be reported for intra-trade statistics. This can also result in mirror differences at the goods level.

The asymmetries and the trade balance that arise after the import and export have been booked are therefore not necessarily due to the real movement of goods. The above-mentioned causes have a direct effect on the foreign trade statistics and can falsify them to a certain extent. The prices that are charged for imports and exports also play a central role in the representation of the actual movement of goods. In the cross-border exchange of goods between internationally operating companies, for example, an undervaluation of goods for tax and customs reasons is widespread. The so-called intra-group transfer prices are therefore not representative of the actual exchange of goods between the countries. In addition, the relationship between the prices of export and import goods and the exchange rates must be considered. If the export of 100 high-priced capital goods is offset by an import of 100 inexpensive raw materials, a surplus is created. This is not due to the volume of traffic, but to goods prices and exchange rates. In this context, it is useful to consider the terms of trade . These show the real exchange ratio of exported and imported goods, i.e. the change in export prices compared to import prices.


A country's foreign trade is determined by several influencing factors. These rarely occur in isolation and are usually mutually dependent. They cause and are part of a cycle that is seldom precisely predictable due to the complex economic mechanisms involved. The most important factors influencing the trade balance are presented below.

Dependency of the export volume on:

Dependency of the import volume on:

  • Abroad: economy, economic policy measures, production
  • macroeconomic shocks (raw materials, demand, etc.)
  • Goods prices (foreign currency)
  • Exchange rates
  • Export and import elasticities
  • Domestic demand
  • domestic production potential, monetary and fiscal policy, GDP , real income
  • Tariffs and trade agreements

Economic Effects

Simplified example of a currency appreciation.

Trade surplus

Main article trade surplus

An increasing and / or permanent trade surplus can have both positive and negative effects on an economy. The increase in domestic production due to high exports in itself leads to a decrease in unemployment , if the reasons for the trade surplus are not a weakness of the domestic market. Furthermore, a surplus enables the export industry to invest in its production and technology, which in turn improves the international competitiveness of this country. At the same time, however, the export country's dependence on the economy and the economic policy measures of its trading partners is increasing.

Consequences of currency devaluation with flexible exchange rates

Main article trade deficit

Two countries or economic areas are assumed that have different currencies, such as the USA and Europe. If the trade balance of a country ( Euroland ) shows a deficit, this means that it has to finance this deficit with its trading partner ( USA ). This creates, in addition to interest obligations for this country, an increased demand for foreign currency (dollar) and an oversupply of the domestic currency (euro). One way for Europe to compensate for its HB deficit is to devalue the euro. An increase in the nominal exchange rate (price quotation) has the consequence that the price for goods from the USA rises in units of European goods, conversely, goods from Europe become cheaper for the USA. If the market now has a high elasticity of demand, the quantities of goods will correct themselves in the short term with the change in the exchange rate ( Robinson condition ). As a result, exports from the euro area will increase as they have become cheaper abroad, and imports will decrease due to the relative rise in prices. If the extent of the increase in exports is large and the decline in imports is strong enough to compensate for the increased import prices, the trade balance will improve in the course of the euro devaluation ( Marshall-Lerner condition ). The main disadvantages of a devaluation are the rise in the domestic price level and the export of recession and unemployment to the neighboring country due to the appreciation of the foreign currency. Advantages could be the shift in external and internal demand towards domestic goods, a resulting increase in domestic production and, ultimately, a decline in unemployment, and thus a positive effect on the domestic economy.

If the government pursues other goals in addition to balancing the trade balance (surplus or deficit), such as stagnation in domestic production, the additional use of fiscal policy measures will be necessary. Similarly, monetary policy interventions of the central banks effective effects on trade imbalances and the economy have.


The improvement of the trade balance through a depreciation of the euro, as described above, is seldom an immediate process due to different reaction times. In foreign trade, the delay in the adjustment of quantities can be observed in particular. The reasons for this are the contractual obligations of the companies, the time-consuming search for cheaper providers and the time-lagged consumption adjustment. As a result, the balancing effect on the trade balance only occurs after a brief deterioration in the balance. This process is also known as the J-curve effect. If the currency appreciates, however, a walking stick effect can be observed due to different price and volume reactions.

Monetary Union / Europe

By joining the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the associated shift of national currency and monetary policy to the supranational level of the European Central Bank (ECB), there is an individual devaluation of the (national) currency described above for the individual countries become impossible. Although the euro remains flexible vis-à-vis countries that have their own, independent currency, it does not remain within the euro area. Since any measures taken by the ECB always have an impact on all member states of the EMU, conflicts arise particularly when regional imbalances arise within the monetary union. This forces the countries, but also the European Union, to modify their economic adjustment mechanisms. With flexible exchange rates, a trade deficit could possibly be compensated for by a devaluation of the currency or an expansionary monetary policy and the associated decline in domestic production, rise in unemployment, economic downturn and the trend towards a recession could be cushioned. Due to the elimination of the exchange rate limits within the EMU, these countries only have limited government countermeasures to prevent an economic downturn. In this context, the lowering of nominal wages to strengthen the competitiveness of the country concerned, labor migration and an expansive fiscal policy are discussed in particular .

Trade balance in US dollars 2010
space country Values ​​in millions of US dollars
1 China $ 272,500
2 Japan $ 166,500
3 Germany $ 162,300
4th Russia $ 68,850
5 Norway $ 60,230
6th Saudi Arabia $ 52,030
179 Greece $ −17,100
184 Canada $ −40.210
187 France $ −53,290
188 Italy $ −61,980
189 Spain $ −66,740
190 United States $ -561,000


One country that has been badly affected in the euro area in recent years has been Italy . With an increase in GDP of only 1.9% in 2007, it is one of the “worst performers” in Europe in economic terms. The country, which - also due to the devaluation of the lira - was able to record a world market share of around 5% through its exports in the 1990s, has had to struggle with weak domestic demand, high unemployment and a persistent trade deficit in recent years. The main reasons were the strong trade relations with Germany, above-average taxes, falling real wages, rising energy costs, outdated technologies due to below-average investments and the great need for reforms in the tax, pension and social system. As a countermeasure, after his election in April 2008, Silvio Berlusconi promised to pursue an expansive fiscal policy in the future. Tax breaks and increased government spending in the family and energy sectors are intended to stimulate private consumption.

The German trade balance, on the other hand, has shown surpluses for decades. As an export nation, Germany traditionally has an export surplus. Only in the early years of the Federal Republic of 1950 and 1951 did the German foreign trade statistics show an import surplus. In 2014, the German foreign trade surplus was around € 213.6 billion, in 2015 Germany achieved a surplus of € 244.3 billion and in 2016 a "record surplus" of € 248.9 billion.

Many countries, such as B. the People's Republic of China , paralyze the above-mentioned market mechanism by pegging their currency to an anchor currency (e.g. the US dollar ). This ensures that China has a very positive trade balance with the USA. If the trade balance is negative , the effects mentioned occur in reverse.

Germany's current account

Balance of trade and current account
German imports and exports, trade balance, terms of trade
values ​​seasonally adjusted, in billion euros
year Export total Import total balance Terms of Trade
(2005 = 100)
1990 328.65 281.53 47.12 98.4
1991 340.42 329.23 11.20 98.7
1992 343.18 325.97 17.21 101.8
1993 323.25 292.41 30.83 103.4
1994 355.19 318.49 36.69 103.5
1995 383.23 339.62 43.61 104.6
1996 403.38 353.00 50.38 104.1
1997 454.34 394.79 59.55 102.0
1998 488.37 423.45 64.92 105.3
1999 510.01 444.80 65.21 105.3
2000 597.44 538.31 59.13 98.5
2001 638.27 542.77 95.49 98.9
2002 651.32 518.53 132.79 100.9
2003 664.45 534.53 129.92 103.0
2004 731.54 575.45 156.10 102.5
2005 786.27 628.09 158.18 100.0
2006 893.04 733.99 159.05 97.5
2007 965.24 769.89 195.35 98.0
2008 984.14 805.84 178.30 95.4
2009 803.31 664.61 138.70 102.0
2010 951.96 797.10 154.86 97.9
2011 1060.10 901.98 158.12 93.9

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: Trade balance  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d Federal Statistical Office (Destatis): Information sheet on foreign trade: Causes of asymmetries in foreign trade statistics . Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  2. Federal Statistical Office (Destatis): Globalization indicators: differences between the concepts of national accounts and foreign trade statistics . Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  3. 2007: € 300,000
  4. STATISTIK AUSTRIA, Vienna: Standard documentation meta information on foreign trade statistics . Processing status: December 11, 2007 (accessed: May 16, 2008, 19:00 UTC).
  5. Eidgenössische Zollverwaltung, Bern: Document Foreign Trade Statistics: General ( Memento of the original of 14 May 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . Processing status: July 31, 2006 (accessed: May 17, 2008, 12:30 UTC).
  6. Clement, Rainer; Terlau, Wiltrud; Kiy, Manfred (2006), Fundamentals of Applied Macroeconomics , 4th, revised edition, Munich: Vahlen, page 424, ISBN 3-8006-3337-X .
  7. ^ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Washington, DC: The World Factbook . Processing status: March 9, 2011 (accessed: March 9, 2010, 14:00 GMT + 1).
  8. Albrecht, Birgit; Baratta, Mario; et al. (2007), Der Fischer Weltalmanach 2008 , Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, page 634, ISBN 978-3-596-72008-8 .
  9. Federal Agency for Foreign Trade, Cologne: Article: Tax cuts should boost Italy's economy  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Toter Link /   . Processing status: April 21, 2008 (accessed: April 25, 2008, 16:30 UTC).
  10. ^ Federal Statistical Office (Destatis): Overall development of German foreign trade from 1950 . Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  11. Deutsche Bundesbank: Time series  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.@1@ 2Template: Toter Link /  
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 22, 2008 .