Are aliens buying our products?
Economists are constantly urging governments to adopt policies that would reduce global imbalances—which, in crude terms, means that China should slash its current-account surplus and America its deficit. Yet they ignore the biggest imbalance of all: the current-account surplus that planet Earth appears to run with extraterrestrials. In theory, countries’ current-account balances should all sum to zero because one country’s export is another’s import. However, if you add up all countries’ reported current-account transactions(exports minus imports of goods and services, net investment income, workers’ remittances and other transfers), the world exported $331 billion more than it imported in 2010, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. The fund forecasts that the global current-account surplus will rise to almost $700 billion by 2014.
The puzzle is compounded by the fact that the world ran a persistent current-account deficit for at least three decades until 2005. In 2001 the deficit was equivalent to 0.5% of global GDP, but by next year the IMF’s forecasts imply that the surplus could hit a record 0.8% of GDP (see left-hand chart). That turnaround exceeds the increase in China’s current-account surplus over the same period. Indeed, the global “surplus” now exceeds China’s.
Answer to the imbalance as given by The Economist:
What is going on? Past studies by the IMF concluded that the global deficit in the 1980s and 1990s was largely due to the underreporting of foreign-investment income by rich countries and the under-recording of freight receipts. But over the past decade, the “deficit” on investment income has diminished, partly because governments have cracked down on tax evasion and partly because interest rates have fallen. An IMF study in 2009, by Marco Terrones and Thomas Helbling, concluded that the biggest cause of the switch from a global current-account deficit to a surplus was mismeasurement of services. International trade in financial and legal services, insurance and consultancy is tricky to measure, and exporters are easier to identify than importers. For instance, law firms involved in cross-border deals are usually quite large, whereas most clients’ spending on their services is relatively small (though it may not seem that way to the clients). Exporters are thus more likely than importers to exceed the threshold for inclusion in the surveys used to track trade in services.