Basics of Trade


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Why Do Countries Trade? 

Information Courtesy Congressional Research Service, IF11016

Economics is largely the study of making the most efficient use of scarce resources. According to mainstream economic theory, trade occurs because it is mutually enriching and can leave both trade partners better off. Through trade, a country can enjoy a higher standard of living by producing those things it does efficiently and trading for things that it produces less efficiently, driven by comparative advantage (see below). This enables a country to produce more from its resources and enjoy a higher level of consumption than would be possible without trade.

A major benefit of trade is the ability to import goods and services and boost consumer welfare. The United States imports for several reasons: some goods cannot be produced domestically in sufficient quantities to satisfy demand or would be costly to produce relative to other economic activities; other products and services are imported because they can be produced less expensively or more efficiently by foreign firms. Because of global value chains, many U.S. imports contain U.S.-made components (e.g., semiconductors in a computer) or U.S.-grown raw materials (e.g., cotton used to make t-shirts). Through trade, consumers can access a greater variety of goods at lower cost. Trade improves consumer purchasing power, particularly for lower-income households that spend a greater share of income on imported goods like clothing. These factors also help control the rate of inflation.

Through trade, producers can access lower-cost inputs used in production and exports, which can improve global competitiveness. Overseas markets for exports provide opportunities for domestic firms to exploit economies of scale—expanding production to reduce average costs and take advantage of increasing returns to scale. In the long term, trade leads to greater competition and can pressure firms to innovate and invest in research and development (R&D), supporting increased productivity and economic growth.

What is Comparative Advantage?

Economist David Ricardo developed the idea of comparative advantage in the early 19th century, and the theory’s insights remain relevant to explaining how countries trade today. Ricardo argued that specialization and trade are mutually beneficial even if a country is more efficient than its trading partners at producing all goods: a country has absolute advantage if it produces a given good at a lower cost than another country. But Ricardo argued that because resources, particularly labor, are (assumed to be) immobile between countries, a comparison of a good’s absolute cost of production in each country is less relevant for determining whether specialization and trade should occur. Instead, what matters is the opportunity cost—how much output of good Y must be forgone to produce one more unit of good X. If the opportunity costs of producing the two goods differ in each country, then each has a comparative advantage in one of the goods. Ricardo predicted that a country can realize gains from trade by specializing in goods that it can produce relatively well (and in which it has a comparative advantage) and then trading those for goods that it produces relatively less well (and in which it has a comparative disadvantage).

Subsequent economic theories have expanded on and qualified the theory of comparative advantage. Economists continue to examine to what extent comparative advantage explains the increasingly complex trade patterns in the 21st century with the rise of global value chains— where different stages of production of a single good take place in several countries—and with the rise of services and digital trade, and cross-border flows of data and technology.

What Determines Comparative Advantage and Specialization in Trade?

Differences in comparative advantage between countries may arise and evolve because of differences in the relative abundance of factors of production—so-called factor endowments— such as labor, physical capital (plants and equipment), human capital (skills and knowledge, including entrepreneurial talent), as well as technology. Economic theory predicts that a country will have comparative advantage in activities that make intensive use of the country’s relatively abundant factors of production. For example, compared to other countries, the United States has relative abundance of high-skilled labor and relative scarcity of low-skilled labor. Thus, U.S. comparative advantage is expected in the production of goods that use high-skilled labor intensively, such as aircraft rather than apparel. In addition, differences in productive technology among countries can affect relative efficiency and may be a basis for comparative advantage. The information and communications technology (ICT) revolution and new platforms for digital trade have broken down some barriers to technology and knowledge-flows across countries.

Can Governments Shape or Distort Comparative Advantage?

Governments can potentially influence comparative advantage through certain policies that either indirectly nurture comparative advantage (often by compensating for market failures, but not targeted at a specific industry or activity) or directly nurture advantages in particular industries (often called industrial policy). For example, indirect influence can include policies that aim to eliminate corruption, enforce property rights, liberalize trade and foreign investment barriers, build transport and communication infrastructure, and support mass education. More direct influence can include policies (such as subsidies or tariffs) that promote and protect certain industries considered to have significant strategic and economic potential but that require initial government support to help a country reach its economic targets. There has been a broad debate on the impact and effectiveness of such targeted policies. While such intervention may benefit some groups in the economy, it potentially entails significant costs, including a misallocation of resources for the economy as a whole and, therefore, an overall loss in the standard of living. Some economists contend that protectionist policies that arise through direct policy interventions can potentially distort a country’s trade and investment flows, reduce economic efficiency, or undermine the development of competitive industries that do not receive support.

What is Intra-Industry Trade?

A sizable portion of global trade occurs via countries exporting and importing goods within the same industry to each other—called intra-industry trade. This type of trade is particularly characteristic of the large flows of products between advanced economies, which have similar resource endowments and levels of development. These trade patterns suggest that there is another basis for trade, other than comparative advantage: the use of economies of scale or increasing returns to scale. Economies of scale exist when a production process is more efficient (i.e., has lower unit costs) the larger the scale at which it takes place. While the United States and Germany, for example, could be equally proficient at producing a wide array of goods such as autos and pharmaceuticals, neither has the productive capacity to produce the full range of goods optimally. Therefore, a pattern of specialization tends to occur with countries producing and trading some sub-set or “niche” of these goods.


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