Current Account and Its Four Components

current account
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The current account is a country's trade balance plus net income and direct payments. The trade balance is a country's imports and exports of goods and services. The current account also measures international transfers of capital.

A current account is in balance when the country's residents have enough to fund all purchases in the country. Residents include the people, businesses, and government. Funds include income and savings. Purchases include all consumer spending as well as business growth and government infrastructure spending.

The goal for most countries is to accumulate money by exporting more goods and services than they import. That’s called a trade surplus. It means a country will take in more earnings than it spends. A deficit occurs when a country's government, businesses, and individuals export fewer goods and services than they import. They take in less capital from foreigners than they send out. 

The current account is part of a country's balance of payments. The other two parts are the capital accounts and financial accounts.

Key Takeaways

  • The nation’s current account is its imports, exports, net income, asset income, and direct transfers.
  • A positive current account means the nation earns more than it spends.
  • A negative account means it spends more then it earns.
  • The trade balance (exports minus imports) is the largest component of a current account surplus or deficit.
  • Nations with negative current accounts may signal a solvency problem.
  • For over 20 years, the U.S. current account has been negative.

The Four Current Account Components

The Bureau of Economic Analysis divides the current account into four components: trade, net income, direct transfers of capital, and asset income. 

1. Trade: Trade in goods and services is the largest component of the current account. A trade deficit alone is enough to create a current account deficit. A deficit in goods in services is large enough to offset any surplus in net income, direct transfers, and asset income. 

2. Net Income: This is income received by the country’s residents minus income paid to foreigners. The country’s residents receive income from two sources. The first is earned on foreign assets owned by a nation's residents and businesses. That includes interest and dividends earned on investments held overseas. The second source is income earned by a country's residents who work overseas.

Income paid to foreigners is similar. The first category is interest and dividend payments to foreigners who own assets in the country. The second is wages paid to foreigners who work in the country.

If the income received by a country's individuals, businesses, and government from foreigners are more than the income paid out, then net income is positive. If it is less, then it contributes to a deficit.

3. Direct Transfers: This includes remittances from workers to their home country. For example, Mexico receives $24.8 billion from abroad. Although there are no exact figures, it's probable that the majority is from immigrants living in the United States. President Donald Trump threatened to stop those payments if Mexico did not pay for the border wall he wants to build. He would use the Patriot Act to confiscate Western Union payments. That would reduce 1% of Mexico's economic output. But it would double its current account deficit of $29 billion.

Direct transfers also include a government's direct foreign aid. For example, the United States spends $22 billion a year on aid to foreign countries. That adds to America's $488.5 billion current account deficit, the largest in the world.

A third direct transfer is foreign direct investments. That's when a country's residents or businesses invest in ventures overseas. To count as FDI, it has to be more than 10% of the foreign company's capital.

The fourth direct transfer is bank loans to foreigners.

4. Asset Income: This is composed of increases or decreases in assets like bank deposits, the central bank, and government reserves, securities, and real estate. For example, if a country’s assets do well, asset income will be high. U.S. assets owned by foreigners are subtracted from asset income. These include:

  • A country's liabilities to foreigners such as deposits of foreign residents at the country's banks.
  • Loans made by foreign banks abroad to domestic banks.
  • Foreign private purchases of a country's government bonds, such as U.S. Treasury securities.
  • Sales of the securities, such as stocks and bonds, made by a nation's businesses to foreigners.
  • Foreign direct investment, such as reinvested earnings, equities, and debt.
  • Other debts owed to foreigners.
  • Assets, like those described, held by foreign governments.
  • Net shipments of the country's currency to foreign governments.

Again, the opposite will add to asset income and subtract from the deficit. More specifically, this includes:

  • Deposits at foreign banks.
  • Bank loans to foreigners.
  • Sales of foreign-based securities.
  • A direct investment made in foreign countries.
  • Debts owed to a country's residents and businesses by foreigners.
  • Foreign assets owned by a country's government.
  • A country's official reserve assets of foreign currency. (Source: "Current Account," Bureau of Economic Analysis.)

How the Current Account Is Part of the Balance of Payments

Balance of Payments

  1. Current Account
    1. Current Account Deficit
      1. U.S. Current Account Deficit
    2. Trade Balance
      1. Imports and Exports
        1. U.S. Imports and Exports Summary
          1. U.S. Imports
            1. U.S. Imports by Year for Top 5 Countries
          2. U.S. Exports
      2. What Is a Trade Deficit?
        1. The U.S. Trade Deficit
          1. U.S. Trade Deficit by Country
          2. U.S. Trade Deficit With China
  2. Capital Account
  3. Financial Account

Article Sources

  1. Corporate Finance Institute. "What Is the Current Account?" Accessed March 18, 2020.

  2. Council on Foreign Relations. "What a Trade Deficit Means." Accessed March 18, 2020.

  3. Peterson Institute for International Economics. “On the Causes of the US Current Account Deficit.” Accessed March 10, 2020.

    The National Bureau of Economics. “America’s Unsustainable Current Account Deficit.” Accessed March 10, 2020.

  4. Bureau of Economic Analysis. “U.S. International Transactions, Third Quarter 2019.” Accessed March 18, 2020.

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. "Is the U.S. Trade Deficit a Problem? What Is the Link Between the Trade Deficit and Exchange Rates?" Accessed March 18, 2020.

  6. Theo Eicher, John H. Mutti, and Michelle H. Turnovsky. "International Economics," Page 713. Routledge, 2009.

  7. The Brookings Institution. "Blocking Remittances Harms Financial Inclusion." Accessed March 18, 2020.

  8. The Washington Post. "Trump Reveals How He Would Force Mexico to Pay for Border Wall." Accessed March 18, 2020.

  9. Bureau of Economic Analysis. “U.S. Current-Account Deficit Increases in 2018.” Accessed March 18, 2020.

  10. Bank for International Settlements. "Definitions of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI): A Methodological Note," Page 3. Accessed March 18, 2020.