These are all cases of the movement of goods irrespective of international sales and purchases, though the movements themselves appear in the international records of imports and exports, and therefore it seems to be assumed, though without any warrant, in the international records of the balance of trade. There is yet another failure in the comparison. The individual trader would include in his sales and purchases services such as repairs performed by him for others, and similar services which others do for himself; but no similar accounts are kept of the corresponding portions of international trade such as the earning of freights and commissions, although in strictness, it is obvious, they belong as much to international trade as the imports and exports themselves, which cannot therefore show a complete "balance of trade."
The illusions which may result then from the confusion of ideas between a balance of trade or profit, and a balance of cash paid or received, and from the identification of an excess of imports over exports or of exports over imports with the balance of trade itself, though they are not the same things, hardly need description. The believers in such illusions are not entitled to any hearing as economists, however, much they may be accepted in the market-place or among politicians.
The "balance of trade" and "the excess of imports over exports" are thus simply pitfalls for the amateur and the unwary. On the statistical side, moreover, there is a good deal more to be urged in order to impress the student with care and attention. The records of imports and exports themselves may vary from the actual facts of international purchases and sales. The actual values of the goods imported and paid for by the nation may vary from the published returns of imports, which are, by the necessity of the case, only estimated values. And so with the exports. The actual purchases and sales may be something very different. A so-called sale may prove abortive through its not being paid for at all, the debtor failing altogether. In any case the purchases of a year may not be paid for by the sales of the year, and the "squaring" of the account may take a long time. Still more the estimates of value may be so taken as not to give even an approximately correct account as far as the records go. Thus in the plan followed in the United Kingdom imports are valued as at the port where they arrive and exports at the port where they are despatched from - a plan which so far places them on an equal footing for the purpose of striking a balance of trade.
But in the import and export records of the United States a different plan is followed. The imports are no longer valued as at the port of arrival with the freight and other charges included, but as at the port of shipment. The results on the balance of trade drawn out must accordingly be quite different in the two cases. With other countries similar differences arise. To deduce then from records of imports and exports any conclusions as to the excess of imports or exports at different times is a work of enormous statistical difficulty. Excellent illustrations will be found in J. Holt Schooling's British Trade Book (1908).
The country which presents the most interesting questions in connexion with the study is the United Kingdom, with its largely preponderating foreign trade. Its annual imports and exports, excluding bullion, exceed 800 millions sterling, and the bullion one year with another is 100 millions more. Its excess of imports, moreover, between the middle and end of the 19th century gradually rose from a small figure to 180 millions sterling annually, and occasioned the popular discussion referred to respecting an "adverse" balance of trade, and particularly the belief existing in many quarters that the nation is living on its capital. The result has been a new investigation of the subject, so as to bring out and present the credits to which the country is entitled in its trade as a shipowner and commission merchant, and to exhibit at the same time the magnitude of British foreign investments, which cannot be less than 2000 millions sterling and must bring in an enormous annual income. Other countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, are in the same condition, though their foreign trade is not on the same scale, and similar rules apply to the reading of their import and export accounts.
The United States is a conspicuous instance of a country which in the first decade of the 20th century was still in the position of a borrower and had a large excess of exports, though there were signs of a change in the opposite direction. New countries generally, such as Canada, Australia and the South American countries, resemble the United States. Comparisons are made difficult by the want of uniformity in the methods of stating the figures, but that different countries have to be grouped according as they are indebted or creditor countries is undeniable, and no study of the trade statistics is possible without recognition of the underlying economic circumstances.
In conclusion it may be useful to repeat the main propositions laid down as to the balance of trade, (1) A "balance of trade" to the individual trader, from whose experience the phrase comes, is not necessarily, as is supposed, a balance received or receivable in the precious metals. It may be invested as it accrues - in machinery, or warehouses, or stock-in-trade, or in book debts, or in stocks and shares or other property outside the trader's business, as well as in cash. (2) What is true of the individual trader is also true of the aggregate of individuals engaged in the foreign trade of a country. Cash is only one of the forms in which they may elect to be paid. (3) The imports and exports recorded in the statistical returns of a country do not correspond with the purchases and sales of individual traders, as the sales especially may be set off by loans, while the so-called imports may include remittances of interest and of capital repaid. (4) When capital is repaid the country receiving it need not be living on it, but may be investing it at home. (5) The foreign trading of countries may also comprise many transactions, such as the earning of freights and commissions, which ought to appear in a proper account showing a balance of trade, as similar transactions appear in an individual trader's account, but which are not treated as imports or exports in the statistical returns of a nation's foreign trade. (6) Import and export returns themselves are not the same as accounts of purchases and sales; the values are only estimates, and must not be relied on literally without study of the actual facts. (7) Import and export returns in different countries are not in all cases taken at the same point, there being important variations, for instance, in this respect between the returns of two great countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, which are often compared, but are really most difficult to compare. (8) The United Kingdom is a conspicuous instance of a country which has a great excess of imports over exports in consequence of its large lending abroad in former times; while its accounts are specially affected by the magnitude of its services as a trading nation carrying passengers and goods all over the world, which do not result, however, in so-called "exports." The United States, on the other hand, is a conspicuous instance of an indebted nation, which has or had until lately few or no sums to its credit in foreign trade except the visible exports. (9) The various countries of the world naturally fall into groups.
The nations of western Europe, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Norway, fall into a group with Great Britain as creditor nations, while Canada, Australasia and the South American countries fall into a group with the United States as undeveloped and indebted countries, So also of other countries, each belongs naturally to one group or another. (10) The excess of imports or exports may vary indefinitely at different times according as a creditor country is receiving or lending at the time, or according as a debtor country is borrowing or paying off its debts at the time, but the permanent characteristics are always to be considered.
Fig. 1. - Ptychodera flava (New Caledonia), from above; about life size.