Current Account Balance Definition: Formula, Components, and Uses

What Is the Current Account Balance?

The current account balance (CAB) is part of a country's financial inflow and outflow record. It is part of the balance of payments, the statement of all transactions made between one country and another. The balance of payments (BOP) is the place where countries record their monetary transactions with the rest of the world.

Examining the current account balance of a country's BOP can provide a good idea of its economic activity. It includes activity around a country's industries, capital market, services, and the money entering the country from other governments or through remittances.

Key Takeaways

  • The current account of the balance of payments includes a country's key activity, such as capital markets and services.
  • The current account balance should theoretically be zero, which is impossible, so in reality, it will tell whether a country is in a surplus or deficit.
  • A surplus is indicative of an economy that is a net creditor to the rest of the world. A deficit reflects a government and an economy that is a net debtor to the rest of the world.
  • The four major components of a current account are goods, services, income, and current transfers.

Current Account Deficit

Understanding the Current Account Balance

Calculating a country's current account balance will show if it has a deficit or a surplus. If there is a deficit, does that mean the economy is weak? Does a surplus automatically mean that the economy is strong? Not necessarily.

It's important to look at all of the factors involved when analyzing the current account on a country's BOP. When looking at a country's current account, it's important to understand the four basic components that factor into it: goods, services, income, and current transfers.

Components of the Current Account Balance


These are movable and physical in nature, and for a transaction to be recorded under "goods," a change of ownership from or to a resident (of the local country) to or from a non-resident (in a foreign country) has to take place. Movable goods include general merchandise, goods used for processing other goods, and non-monetary gold. An export is marked as a credit (money coming in), and an import is noted as a debit (money going out).


These transactions result from an intangible action, such as transportation, business services, tourism, royalties, or licensing. If money is being paid for a service, it is recorded as an import (a debit). If money is received, it is recorded as an export (credit).


Income is the money going in (credit) or out (debit) of a country from salaries, portfolio investments (in the form of dividends, for example), direct investments, or any other type of investment. Together, goods, services, and income provide an economy with fuel to function. This means that items under these categories are actual resources that are transferred to and from a country for economic production.

Current Transfers

Current transfers are unilateral transfers with nothing received in return. These include workers' remittances, donations, aids and grants, official assistance, and pensions. Due to their nature, current transfers are not considered real resources that affect economic production.

The Formula for Current Account Balance

The mathematical equation that allows us to determine the current account balance tells us whether the current account is in deficit or surplus (whether it has more credit or debit). This will help understand where any discrepancies may stem and how resources may be restructured to allow for a better functioning economy.

 C A B = ( X M ) + ( N Y + N C T ) where: X = Exports of goods and services M = Imports of goods and services N Y = Net income abroad N C T = Net current transfers \begin{aligned} &CAB= (X-M)+(NY+NCT)\\ &\textbf{where:}\\ &X = \text{Exports of goods and services}\\ &M = \text{Imports of goods and services}\\ &NY = \text{Net income abroad}\\ &NCT = \text{Net current transfers} \end{aligned} CAB=(XM)+(NY+NCT)where:X=Exports of goods and servicesM=Imports of goods and servicesNY=Net income abroadNCT=Net current transfers

What Does the Current Account Balance Tell You?

Theoretically, the CAB should be zero, but, in the real world, this is improbable. If the current account has a surplus or a deficit, it informs on the government and state of the economy in question, both on its own and in comparison to other world markets.

A surplus is indicative of an economy that is a net creditor to the rest of the world. This means the country is likely providing an abundance of resources to other economies and is owed money in return. By providing these resources abroad, a country with a CAB surplus gives other economies the chance to increase their productivity while running a deficit. This is referred to as financing a deficit.

A current account balance deficit reflects a government and an economy that is a net debtor to the rest of the world. It is investing more than it is saving and is using resources from other economies to meet its domestic consumption and investment requirements.

For example, an economy decides that it needs to invest for the future to receive investment income in the long run. Instead of saving, it sends the money abroad into an investment project. This would be marked as a debit in the financial account of the balance of payments of that period, but, when future returns are made, they would be entered as investment income (a credit) in the current account under the income section.

A current account deficit is usually accompanied by depletion in foreign exchange assets because those reserves would be used for investment abroad. The deficit could also signify increased foreign investment in the local market, in which case the local economy is liable to pay the foreign economy investment income in the future.

Analyzing the Current Account Balance

It's important to understand from where a current account balance deficit or surplus is coming. When analyzing it, be sure to examine what is fueling the extra credit or debit and what is being done to counter the effects.

Depending on the nation's stage of economic growth, its goals, and, of course, the implementation of its economic program, the state of the current account is relative to the characteristics of the country in question. For example, a surplus financed by a donation may not be the most prudent way to run an economy.

A deficit between exports and imports of goods and services combined—otherwise known as a balance of trade (BOT) deficit—could mean that the country is importing more to increase its productivity and to eventually churn out more exports. This, in turn, could ultimately finance and alleviate the deficit.

A deficit could also stem from a rise in investments from abroad and increased obligations by the local economy to pay investment income (a debit under income in the current account). Investments from abroad usually have a positive effect on the local economy because, if used wisely, they provide for increased market value and production for that economy in the future. This can allow the local economy eventually to increase exports and, again, reverse its deficit.

So, a deficit is not necessarily bad for an economy; especially for an economy in the developing stages or under reform. Sometimes an economy has to spend money to make money, so it runs a deficit intentionally. However, an economy must be prepared to finance this deficit through a combination of means that will help reduce external liabilities and increase credits from abroad.

For example, a current account deficit that is financed by short-term portfolio investment or borrowing is likely riskier. That's because a sudden failure in an emerging capital market or an unexpected suspension of foreign government assistance, perhaps due to political tensions, will result in an immediate cessation of credit in the current account.

What Are the 3 Balance of Payments?

The main categories of the balance of payment are the current account, the capital account, and the financial account.

How Is the Current Account Balance Calculated?

The current account is calculated by finding the balance of trade and adding it to net earnings from broad and net transfer payments.

What Is the Difference Between the Current Account and the Balance of Payments?

The current account is the sum of net income from abroad, net current transfers, and the balance of trade. The balance of payments includes the current account and the capital account.

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  1. International Monetary Fund. "Balance of Payments Manual," Page xi.