The balance of payments (BOP) is a statement of all transactions made between entities in one country and the rest of the world over a defined period of time, such as a quarter or a year.
The balance of payments (BOP), also known as balance of international payments, summarizes all transactions that a country's individuals, companies and government bodies complete with individuals, companies and government bodies outside the country. These transactions consist of imports and exports of goods, services and capital, as well as transfer payments, such as foreign aid and remittances.
The balance of payments divides transactions in two accounts: the current account and the capital account. Sometimes the capital account is called the financial account, with a separate, usually very small, capital account listed separately. The current account includes transactions in goods, services, investment income and current transfers. The capital account, broadly defined, includes transactions in financial instruments and central bank reserves. Narrowly defined, it includes only transactions in financial instruments. The current account is included in calculations of national output, while the capital account is not.
The sum of all transactions recorded in the balance of payments must be zero, as long as the capital account is defined broadly. The reason is that every credit appearing in the current account has a corresponding debit in the capital account, and vice-versa. If a country exports an item (a current account credit), it effectively imports foreign capital when that item is paid for (a capital account debit).
If a country cannot fund its imports through exports of capital, it must do so by running down its reserves. This situation is often referred to as a balance of payments deficit, using the narrow definition of the capital account that excludes central bank reserves. In reality, however, the broadly defined balance of payments must add up to zero by definition. In practice, statistical discrepancies arise due to the difficulty of accurately counting every transaction between an economy and the rest of the world.
Balance of payments and international investment position data are critical in formulating national and international economic policy. Certain aspects of the balance of payments data, such as payment imbalances and foreign direct investment, are key issues that a nation's policymakers seek to address.
Economic policies are often targeted at specific objectives that, in turn, impact the balance of payments. For example, one country might adopt policies specifically designed to attract foreign investment in a particular sector, while another might attempt to keep its currency at an artificially low level in order to stimulate exports and build up its currency reserves. The impact of these policies is ultimately captured in the balance of payments data.
While a nation's balance of payments necessarily zeroes out the current and capital accounts, imbalances can and do appear between different countries' current accounts. According to the World Bank, the U.S. had the world's largest current account deficit in 2017, at $462 billion. Germany had the world's largest surplus, at $296 billion.
Such imbalances can generate tensions between countries: Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of reversing the U.S.'s trade deficits, particularly with Mexico and China. The Economist argued in 2017 that Germany's surplus "puts unreasonable strain on the global trading system," since "to offset such surpluses and sustain enough aggregate demand to keep people in work, the rest of the world must borrow and spend with equal abandon."
Prior to the 19th century, international transactions were denominated in gold, providing little flexibility for countries experiencing trade deficits. Growth was low, so stimulating a trade surplus was the primary method of strengthening a nation's financial position. National economies were not well integrated with each other, however, so steep trade imbalances rarely provoked crises. The industrial revolution increased international economic integration, and balance of payment crises began to occur more frequently.
The Great Depression led countries to abandon the gold standard and engage in competitive devaluation of their currencies, but the Bretton Woods system that prevailed from the end of World War II until the 1970s introduced a gold-convertible dollar with fixed exchange rates to other currencies. As the U.S. money supply increased and its trade deficit deepened, however, the government became unable to fully redeem foreign central banks' dollar reserves for gold, and the system was abandoned.
Since the Nixon shock – as the end of the dollar's convertibility to gold is known – currencies have floated freely, meaning that country experiencing a trade deficit can artificially depress its currency - by hoarding foreign reserves, for example - making its products more attractive and increasing its exports. Due to the increased mobility of capital across borders, balance of payments crises sometimes occur, causing sharp currency devaluations such as the ones that struck in Southeast Asian countries in 1998.