What Is Balanced Trade?

Balanced trade is a condition in which an economy runs neither a trade surplus nor a trade deficit. A balanced trade model is an alternative to a free trade one, because a model that obliges countries to match imports and exports to ensure a zero balance of trade would require various interventions in the market to secure this outcome.

Key Takeaways

  • A balanced trade model is one in which imports of a country are equal to its exports.
  • Implementation of balanced trade can be achieved through inflation control and by imposing tariffs or other barriers, such as import certificates, on a country-by-country basis.
  • While proponents of balanced trade point to its role in protecting growth, jobs, and wages in an economy that runs a trade deficit, opponents say it will cause inflation and imposition of tariffs and duties might spark a trade war.

The Balance of Trade

Understanding Balanced Trade

A balanced trade model differs from a free trade model, in which countries utilize their resources and comparative advantages to buy or sell as many goods and services as demand and supply allow. A country would use tariffs or other barriers to trade to try to achieve balanced trade, which might be either on a country-by-country basis (zero balance on a bilateral basis) or for the overall trade balance (where a surplus with one country might be offset by a deficit with another). There have been various proposals in addition to tariffs.

If a particular country is believed to be manipulating flows, countervailing duties against imports from that country or even a fixed (at different from market) exchange rate have been proposed to try to balance bilateral trade. Another suggestion, which does not target specific countries or industries, is a system of traded "import certificates"; exporters would receive these for exports and importers would need them to be able to import, thus theoretically limiting the value of imports to that of exports. Warren Buffet is a supporter of such certificates but acknowledges that they are equivalent to tariffs.

International trade organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), typically limit tariffs and trade barriers, so attempting to enter into a balanced trade agreement would run afoul of membership agreements.

Arguments for Balanced Trade

The proponents of balanced trade claim that it is simple to measure and administer because it does not require complex calculations and valuations relating to the exports and imports of an economy. They have argued from the perspective of protecting growth, jobs, and wages in an economy that runs a trade deficit, on the (implicit or explicit) assumption that imports equate to sending jobs abroad. There is little incentive for a trade surplus economy to move to balance, as it would conversely experience lower jobs and growth.

Arguments Against Balanced Trade

Some criticisms of this model include:

  • It interferes with the free market, reducing overall efficiency in the economy.
  • It seems to ignore the rest of the balance of payments. Capital flows act as a counterweight to trade flows; capital controls would thus be needed to make the system work.
  • Attempts to limit trade often result in circumventions of those restrictions (for example, under-invoicing imports).
  • Domestic prices are likely to rise.
  • Imposing tariffs and duties might spark a trade war.