balance of payments

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balance of payments

balance of payments, balance between all payments out of a country within a given period and all payments into the country, an outgrowth of the mercantilist theory of balance of trade. Balance of payments includes all payments between a country and its trading partners and is made up of the balance of trade, private foreign loans and their interest, loans and grants by governments or international organizations, and movements of gold (capital account). A chronically unfavorable balance of payments, when debits exceed credits, may affect the stability of the nation's currency, particularly where exchange rates are no longer fixed. After World War II the International Monetary Fund was established to handle problems relating to the balance of payments and foreign exchange.

Since the late 1950s the United States has generally experienced an unfavorable balance of payments because of large-scale foreign aid, sizable U.S. investment in Europe, and major U.S. military investments abroad. In the early 1970s the United States, in an effort to create a more favorable balance of payments, announced (1971, 1973) a devaluation of the U.S. dollar. However, the increase in the cost of petroleum from the Arab states (1973–74) had a negative effect on the balance of payments in the United States and most countries in Western Europe. In addition, tight money policies and high deficits adversely affected the savings rate in the United States in the 1980s and caused the balance of payments to decline even further. As a result, the United States looked to foreign borrowing to fill the gap, but the interest payments only increased the shortfall in the balance of payments. In the late 1990s and subsequent years the U.S. balance of payments reached record negative levels.


See N. Fatemi, Problems of Balance of Payment and Trade (1975); T. De Saint Phalle, Trade, Inflation, and the Dollar (1981); D. Bigman, ed., Floating Exchange Rates and the State of World Trade Payments (1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Balance of Payments


in the case of any particular country, a balance reflecting the ratio of monetary receipts from foreign countries to total payments to foreign countries, as computed for a year, quarter, or other period of time. A favorable balance of payments results when receipts exceed payments, whereas an unfavorable balance of payments, or deficit, results when the reverse is true. The balance of payments reflects the diverse economic relations that exist between countries and lead to various international payments; these relations include foreign trade and the export of capital. The balance of payments also reflects international relations in the political, scientific, technological, and cultural spheres; this is seen, for example, in expenditures that arise from the maintenance of representations in foreign countries, from trips by official delegations and tourists, from the acquisition of patents and licenses, and from private transfers.

In developed capitalist countries, the chief principals in international economic relations are private companies, including those engaged in commerce, industry, banking, insurance, and transport. The balance of payments forms as the spontaneous result of many isolated transactions an operations, for which no accurate account can be maintained. The balance of payments tables compiled in bourgeois states therefore represent only an approximate evaluation of receipts and payments. The item in the balance of payments tables that is called errors and omissions provides particular evidence of this fact.

The balance of payments encompasses only the payments actually made during a given period. By contrast, the balance of international indebtedness, or balance of claims and liabilities, is the ratio of the foreign claims of a given country to the foreign liabilities of that country.

The balance of payments in capitalist and developing nations includes scores of diverse items, which usually are grouped in the following categories, as recommended by the International Monetary Fund: foreign trade (exports and imports of commodities), services (including transport, tourism, insurance, government expenditures, banking services, and income from investments), unilateral transfers, the movement of long-term capital, the movement of short-term capital, change in the gold and currency reserves, and errors and omissions. The first three categories constitute the current account balance of payments, the next two are the balance of capital movements, and the last two are the balancing items.

Analysis of the balance of payments is very important in describing a country’s place in the system of international economic relations, especially with respect to world trade. When receipts from the export of commodities consistently exceed import payments, this generally points to a country’s strength in world markets; this was the case with Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. On the other hand, import payments that exceed export earnings are an indication of economic difficulties related to the deficit of the balance of payments; this was the position of the USA in these same years.

An important item in the current account balance of payments concerns the receipts and payments for foreign investments. This item reflects profit received from abroad and paid abroad, in the form of dividends, interest, and so forth. The profit represents a source of enormous income for capital-exporting imperialist states with large capital investments abroad, either in the form of direct investments or in the form of loans and credits. In 1971, for example, the income of Great Britain from foreign investments was £667 million, more than double the positive trade balance. The profit from foreign capital investments repatriated to the United States amounted to $10.7 billion in 1971 and was the second most important item of receipts in the nation’s balance of payments, after the income from export commodities. This attests to the role of the United States as the center of financial exploitation in the capitalist world.

The overwhelming majority of developing countries are importers of capital, and payments on foreign investments are one of the chief reasons for the overall balances of payments deficits. The payments on foreign investments absorb an ever greater portion of the export earnings of the developing countries.

Foreign military expenditures are also included in the current account balance of payments. These expenditures are due to imperialist states’ policy of aggression and the maintenance of numerous military bases abroad. This is one of the most important reasons for the deficit in the balance of payments and the ensuing monetary crises. The enormous rise in state military and political expenditures abroad underlies the chronic deficit in the US balance of payments. Expenditures from the early 1960’s through the early 1970’s totaled more than $100 billion, some 40 percent more than the surplus for all other items in the USA’s balance of payments.

Capital movement as reflected in the balance of payments is primarily in the form of the movement of long-term capital. Long-term capital movement includes direct investments, which provide for full ownership of enterprises or control of their operations; portfolio investments, made in the form of investments in overseas securities; and loans, credits, and subsidies. The export of capital—the outflow of capital from a given country—is reflected as an expenditure in the balance of payments; the import of capital, on the other hand, represents an influx of funds and is included as income. The export of capital, for example, to the developing countries, causes a flow of profit from the countries where the foreign capital has been placed; this ultimately has a negative effect on the balance of payments of the countries receiving foreign capital. At the same time, increased export of capital sometimes directly worsens the balance of payments of the imperialist states. The export of capital and military expenditures are precisely the reasons for the balance of payments deficit in the USA.

The movement of short-term capital is related to the way money on deposit in foreign banks is constantly transferred between countries. These transfers are to a significant degree related to speculation with respect to change in exchange rates or interest on deposits.

The indicator of a surplus or deficit of the balance of payments is important in describing the economic situation of a country. In capitalist nations, several methods are used for determining this balance; in the USA, for example, three methods are employed. The balancing indicator is most often the balance of the current transactions and the balance of the change in the gold and currency reserves.

Various methods are used to regulate the balance of payments. One basic method involves the export of gold when there is a deficit balance and the import of gold when there is a surplus balance. The chronic balance of payments deficit in the USA in the 1960’s and early 1970’s led to a significant outflow of gold and a reduction in US gold reserves. The balance of payments deficit may also be covered by increasing short-term or long-term debts to creditor nations, which accumulate the corresponding obligations of their debtors. Because the gold reserves of the capitalist and developing countries are limited, foreign credits and loans are becoming the basic means of covering the balance of payments deficit; this is especially true in the case of developing countries. To improve the balance of payments situation, capitalist states frequently resort to a currency devaluation, which helps increase export receipts from tourism, the import of foreign capital, and so forth.

The balance of payments situation of a capitalist country is a basic factor in determining the state of that country’s currency. For example, the crisis of the US dollar basically resulted from a sharp deterioration in the US balance of payments, which had a deficit of almost $10 billion in 1972. The US government was forced to devalue the dollar in 1971 and 1973 because of the drop in gold and currency reserves and the increase in foreign debts, both of which were caused by the chronic balance of payments deficit.

In socialist countries, foreign economic relations are based on the state monopoly of foreign trade and the foreign-exchange monopoly. The balance of payments is planned as a component part of a general plan embracing the national economy, foreign trade, and currency.

Payments of the member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) are mutually balanced through long-term planning of trade and payments between the countries; payments in transfer rubles are used. Because of the foreign-exchange monopoly, the balance of payments does not influence the situation of the monetary units of the socialist countries. In relations with the capitalist states, the Soviet Union and other socialist countries avoid balance of payments deficits through the planned use of foreign-exchange and gold resources and anticipated foreign-exchange receipts.


Komissarov, V. P., and A. N. Popov. Mezhdunarodnye valiutnye i kreditnye otnosheniia. Moscow, 1965.
Frei, L. I. Valiutnye i finansovye raschety kapitalisticheskikh stran. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

balance of payments

Economics the difference over a given time between total payments to foreign nations, arising from imports of goods and services and transfers abroad of capital, interest, grants, etc., and total receipts from foreign nations, arising from exports of goods and services and transfers from abroad of capital, interest, grants, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005