Measuring Trade Balances

A few decades ago, it was common to track the solid or physical items that planes, trains, and trucks transported between countries as a way of measuring the balance of trade. Economists call this measurement is called the merchandise trade balance. In most high-income economies, including the United States, goods comprise less than half of a country’s total production, while services comprise more than half. The last two decades have seen a surge in international trade in services, powered by technological advances in telecommunications and computers that have made it possible to export or import customer services, finance, law, advertising, management consulting, software, construction engineering, and product design. Most global trade still takes the form of goods rather than services, and the government announces and the media prominently report the merchandise trade balance. Old habits are hard to break. Economists, however, typically rely on broader measures such as the balance of trade or the current account balance which includes other international flows of income and foreign aid.