What Is a Closed Economy and Why Are There None Today?

What Is a Closed Economy?

A closed economy typically refers to a country that does not trade or engage in other financial exchanges with any other country. That means no imports come into the country and no exports leave it. The goal of a closed economy is complete self-sufficiency, providing domestic consumers with everything they need from within the country's own borders. In today's interconnected world, closed economies are more of a theoretical concept than a reality, although some economies are more closed than others.

Key Takeaways

  • A closed economy refers to a country that produces all of its own goods and services and doesn't participate in international trade.
  • Closed economies are virtually nonexistent today, although some countries come closer than others to having one.
  • Even in countries with relatively open economies, governments may close off a specific sector or industry from international competition through the use of quotas, subsidies, and tariffs—a practice often referred to as protectionism.

Why There Are No Real Closed Economies Today

The trend toward globalization in recent decades suggests that governments are becoming more open to participating in international trade. Closed economies are counterintuitive to modern economic theory, which promotes the opening of domestic markets to international trade to capitalize on comparative advantages, ideally to the benefit of all citizens. By allocating labor and other resources to their most productive, efficient operations, companies and individuals can increase their wealth, the theory maintains.

In addition, according to the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), "Relatively open economies grow faster than relatively closed ones, and salaries and working conditions are generally better in companies that trade than in those that do not. More prosperity and opportunity around the world also helps promote greater stability and security for everyone."

Potential advantages aside, maintaining a genuinely closed economy is difficult in modern society, in part because raw materials play a vital role in everyday life and in the production of finished goods. Many countries that are powerhouses when it comes to manufacturing and exporting do not have all the necessary raw materials locally and have no choice but to import them.

For instance, in 2021, according to World's Top Exports, an independent research and educational website, the five biggest importers of crude oil were:

  1. China: $229.3 billion (22.3% of the total)
  2. United States: $138.4 billion (13.5%)
  3. India: $106.4 billion (10.4%)
  4. South Korea: $67 billion (6.5%)
  5. Japan: $63.1 billion (6.1%)

The United States, in fact, is both an importer and an exporter of crude oil, importing about 6.11 million barrels a day from other countries, while at the same time exporting about 2.90 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A more dramatic example, now and in the future, may be lithium, a metal that has become integral to the production of the batteries that power electric vehicles. The U.S. and many other industrialized nations have very limited lithium reserves and must rely on others for their supply. In fact, Australia, Latin America, and China collectively accounted for 98% of the world's lithium production in 2020, according to McKinsey & Co.

Why Close Off an Economy?

Although totally closed economies are essentially nonexistent today, governments may still close off a specific industry or sector of their economy from international competition. Some oil-producing countries, for example, have a history of prohibiting foreign petroleum firms from doing business within their borders.

The argument in favor of a partially closed economy is that a completely open one runs the risk of becoming overly dependent on imports, resulting in a severely lopsided balance of trade. Also, domestic producers may suffer because they cannot compete at low international prices. Therefore, governments may use trade controls like tariffs, subsidies, and quotas to support domestic enterprises. This policy is often referred to as protectionism.

The United States, for example, which has relatively low tariffs overall, imposed a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports in 2018, in the name of protecting domestic producers from unfair foreign competition, particularly from China. In 2022, those rules were amended.

Measuring How Closed an Economy Is

One way to assess the degree to which an economy is open or closed is by measuring the country's imports and exports as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP).

By that measure, the African nation of Sudan may have the most closed economy today. Using the most recently available figures, imports represent just 1.9% of Sudan's GDP, while exports represent 2.3%. In the U.S., by comparison, those figures are 13.3% and 10.2% respectively.

What Does Balance of Trade Mean?

The term balance of trade refers to the value of a country's imports as compared to the value of its ports. A country that imports more that it exports will have a trade deficit, while one that exports more than it imports will have a trade surplus.

What Is the Difference Between a Tariff and a Quota?

A tariff imposes a tax on a particular good coming in from another country, while a quota limits the quantity of such goods.

What Is a Trade Subsidy?

A trade subsidy is a financial benefit that a government provides to a company or industry in order to make its products more competitive at home and in international markets.

The Bottom Line

No country today appears to have a completely closed economy. But some are more closed than others. Countries with relatively closed economies rely less on imports and exports than those with more open economies, attempting to produce whatever goods and services they require from within their own borders. Economists generally believe that relatively open economies are more beneficial for their citizens, and the world at large, than relatively closed ones.

Article Sources
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  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. "Why Open Markets Matter."

  2. World's Top Exports. "Crude Oil Imports by Country."

  3. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Oil and Petroleum Products Explained."

  4. McKinsey & Co. "Lithium Mining: How New Production Technologies Could Fuel theGlobal EV Revolution."

  5. Chicago Booth Review. "Will Americans Benefit from New Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum?"

  6. The White House. "A Proclamation on Adjusting Imports of Steel Into the United States."

  7. The World Bank. "Exports of Goods and Services (% of GDP)."

  8. The World Bank. "Imports of Goods and Services (% of GDP)."

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