Measuring and assessing the external position of a country are essential steps in the economic policymaking process. Data on the transactions and financial flows between a country and the rest of the world, which are systematically summarized in the balance of payments, form the basis of any analysis of a country’s external position and need for adjustment.

Measuring and assessing the external position of a country are essential steps in the economic policymaking process. Data on the transactions and financial flows between a country and the rest of the world, which are systematically summarized in the balance of payments, form the basis of any analysis of a country’s external position and need for adjustment.

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce the accounting framework and key concepts used in analyzing the balance of payments and external debt. The first part of the chapter describes the framework; the second part of the chapter focuses on the measurement of a country’s external position, drawing on the methodology developed in the Fifth Edition of the Balance of Payments Manual (hereafter known as the Manual).1 The section also examines important issues in measuring balance of payments transactions in former centrally planned economies. The key concepts used in analyzing the balance of payments and external debt are introduced in following sections as well as the main developments in Poland’s balance of payments and the exchange rate of the zloty. Finally, the last part of the chapter presents some exercises and issues for discussion.

Conceptual Framework of the Balance of Payments

Basic Conventions

A country’s balance of payments tracks payments to and receipts from nonresidents. According to the Manual, the balance of payments is “a statistical statement that systematically summarizes, for a specific time period, the economic transactions of an economy with the rest of the world.” Various conventions for recording items in the balance of payments are presented below.

The Double-Entry Accounting System

The basic convention applied in constructing a balance of payments is the double-entry accounting system. Every transaction recorded using this system is represented by two entries with equal values but opposite signs, a debit (−) and a credit (+). Thus, by convention, certain items are recorded as debits and others as credits, as follows:

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With double-entry bookkeeping, the sum of all credits should be identical to the sum of all debits, and the overall total should equal zero. In this sense, the balance of payments is always in balance. The example in Box 4.1 illustrates how a shipment of cars exported from Russia to Poland and involving a payment by a Polish importer through the banking system is recorded under the above conventions.

Some key points in balance of payments accounting are:

  • Real and financial transactions. “Real” flows involve transactions in goods and services (such as imports, exports, travel, and shipping). Such transactions contrast with financial transactions, or changes in levels of financial assets and liabilities (for example, the repayment of principal on an outstanding loan constitutes a reduction in a liability). Transactions in goods and services are recorded in the current account of the balance of payments. Financial transactions are recorded in the capital and financial account of the balance of payments.

  • Transfers. Unrequited transfers across national borders are one-sided transactions. Suppose, for example, that the Japanese government donates to the Kyrgyz Republic buses for public transportation. To deal with such transactions, which involve no financial compensation, the balance of payments methodology includes a category called “transfers.” This convention allows one-sided transactions to be converted to standard two-sided transactions. The donated buses are recorded as an import (debit) in the accounts of the Kyrgyz Republic, having been “paid for” by a transfer (credit). More generally, all transfers with an economic value, when no quid pro quo is involved, give rise to a counterentry, either a current or a capital transfer. Current transfers include cash transfers, gifts in kind (such as food and medicines), contributions to international organizations, and remittances sent by workers residing abroad to families back home. Capital transfers may be in cash (investment grants) or in kind (debt forgiveness).

  • Errors and omissions. In practice, accounts tend not to balance, largely because data are derived from different sources or because some items are underrecorded or not recorded at all. All balance of payments accounts contain the item “net errors and omissions,” which reflects errors in estimation and omissions of transactions that should have been recorded. Entries are recorded net because of the possibility that credit errors will offset debit errors—that is, an underestimation of exports may be partly offset by an underestimation of imports. Since credit and debit errors may offset each other, the size of the net residual cannot be taken as an indicator of the relative accuracy of the balance of payments statement. Nonetheless, large and persisting net residuals impede the interpretation and analysis of the balance of payments for an individual country. Analogously, at the level of the world as a whole, recording discrepancies in one country are not offset by under- or overestimation in other countries.2

  • Flows and stocks. The balance of payments accounts record flows in two directions. These flows are distinguished from the stocks associated with a country’s international investment position—that is, the value of a country’s assets and liabilities vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The former are measured for a specific time period, whereas the latter are recorded at a point in time, often the end of the year. Two stocks discussed in this workshop are the level of international reserves (external assets of a country) and the level of external debt (a liability).

An Example of Double-Entry Accounting

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The concept of residency in the balance of payments is based on the transactor’s center of economic interest, not on the transactor’s nationality. This practice follows the System of National Accounts (SNA) studied in Chapter 2. The main considerations relating to economic territory are as follows:

Individuals living in a country are generally considered residents if they have resided there for at least 12 months. Nonresidents include visitors (tourists, crews of ships or aircraft, and seasonal workers); border workers (who are considered to be residents of the country in which they live); diplomats and consular representatives; and members of armed forces stationed in a foreign country, irrespective of the duration of their stay.

Enterprises are considered residents of the economy where they are engaged in business, provided they have at least one productive establishment and plan to operate it over a long period of time. Therefore, subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies are considered to be resident in the country in which they are located.

General government, including all agencies of the central, regional, and local governments, together with embassies, consulates, and military establishments located outside the country, are considered to be resident.

Time Periods and the Timing of Recording

In principle, the time period for recording balance of payments flows may be of any length. However, it is usually dictated by practical considerations, especially the frequency of data collection. Many countries prepare balance of payments data annually because firm estimates for some balance of payments transactions are available only once each year. However, since other data (for example, for exports and imports) are often available quarterly and sometimes monthly, some countries prepare quarterly balance of payments data consistent with quarterly estimates of the national accounts.

By convention, both parties to an international transaction record it when there is a legal change of ownership. In principle, both parties record the same transaction simultaneously, according to the principles of accrual accounting (when transactions such as interest payments are due to be settled, not when cash settlements are made). In practice, trade, service, and financial transactions may be recorded at different times by the two parties, so that adjustments need to be made to the original data derived from trade returns, exchange records, or enterprise surveys.


A balance of payments transaction should be valued at the market price, which reflects the terms of a specific exchange between a willing buyer and a willing seller. The market price is distinguished from a general price indicator (such as a world market price) for a specific commodity.

In practice, this definition creates difficulties in recording certain transactions, including:

  • Barter transactions, which involve a direct exchange of goods for other goods rather than for money;

  • Transactions between affiliated enterprises (for example, profit transfers between a subsidiary and the parent company); and

  • Transfers, which often do not have a market price.

Proxy measures are used to record these kinds of transactions. For example, bartered goods are valued at market prices.

Exports and imports are shown f.o.b. (free on board), or excluding the cost of transportation beyond national borders. Imports are usually recorded by customs on a c.i.f. basis (including the cost of international insurance and freight). However, in the balance of payments accounts, the insurance and freight components are recorded under “services.”

Unit of Account

Since transactions may be settled in any currency, an appropriate unit of account is required for recording balance of payments transactions. Although the national currency can be used, its analytical value loses significance over time as the exchange rate fluctuates. For this reason, balance of payments accounts are often expressed in terms of a stable foreign currency (such as the U.S. dollar or the SDR), facilitating comparisons across countries. The appropriate exchange rate (the market rate prevailing on the transaction date) is used to convert data from the currency used in a transaction into the unit of account currency.3

Changes in the 1993 Balance of Payments Manual

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Changes in the Balance of Payments Manual

Changes in Coverage

Between the publication of the Fourth Edition of the Manual (1977) and the Fifth Edition (1993), there were many developments in the field of international trade and finance, including increased trade in services, widespread abolition of capital controls, innovations in new financial instruments, and new approaches to restructuring external debt.

As a result, the methodology for recording transactions in the Manual had to be adjusted to accommodate these changes. The Fifth Edition aims to improve the integration of external sector accounting with other macroeconomic accounts, particularly the SNA, and incorporate the changes that have taken place in international transactions (see Box 4.2). Unlike the previous edition, the 1993 Manual provides a conceptual framework for presenting the external transactions and international financial position of an economy through a comprehensive measure of external assets and liabilities. Among other important changes, the Fifth Edition:

  • Records interest on an accrual rather than a cash basis;

  • Redefines the current account to exclude capital transfers, including them instead in the capital and financial account (formerly the capital account), which has been revised to provide more detailed data on these flows;

  • Changes the heading “nonfactor services” to “income transactions”;

  • Expands the classification scheme for service transactions in recognition of their growing importance;

  • Expands and restructures the coverage of portfolio investment to reflect the development of new financial instruments such as derivatives and financial futures;

  • Extends coverage of emerging forms of exceptional financing transactions such as debt forgiveness and debt/equity swaps; and

  • Develops a consistent classification scheme for income and financial assets and liabilities, which relates flows to the overall investment position (stocks).

Throughout, the nomenclature has been revised to describe the increasingly sophisticated composition of international transactions more accurately.

The Net International Investment Position

A country’s international investment position is its stock of external financial assets minus its stock of external liabilities. The position at the end of a specific period reflects financial transactions during that period (typically one year), valuation changes from movements in exchange rates and prices, and other adjustments that affect the level of assets and liabilities.

Data on balance of payments flows and the international investment position constitute the complete set of international accounts for an economy. Because data on stocks are often used to determine income receipts, consistent classifications of the income component of the current account, the financial account of the balance of payments, and the international investment position are essential for reconciling stocks and flows and for performing a meaningful analysis of yields and rates of return on external investments.

Standard Classification of the Balance of Payments

Main Components

A coherent structure for classifying balance of payments transactions facilitates the process of adapting the data for various purposes, including analyzing recent trends and developing projections. The Manual’s standard classification system has two key accounts: the current account and the capital and financial account. Their major components are presented in Box 4.3.

In selecting the standard components, the following criteria have been given the greatest weight. Each item should:

  • Exhibit distinctive behavior, that is, its economic influences should be unique;

  • Be important in a number of countries;

  • Be measurable, requiring regular collection of statistics; and

  • Coordinate with other statistical systems (especially the SNA).

(i) Current account

The current account comprises “real” transactions—goods, services, income, and current transfers. Transactions classified under “goods” relate to the movement of merchandise—exports and imports—and generally involve a change of ownership. “Services” can be of many different types. “Income” may be derived from labor (wages paid to employees living in neighboring countries) or from financial assets or liabilities (for example, interest payments on external debt).

Most current account entries show gross debits or credits, but entries in the capital and financial account are typically net. Net entries are shown only as credits or debits, according to the conventions.

(ii) Capital and financial account

Box 4.3 shows the two major categories of the capital and financial account. The main item in the capital account is capital transfers. The financial account has four functional categories.

  • Direct investment, which is further divided into equity capital, reinvested earnings, and other capital. Direct investment is classified primarily on a directional basis (investment in the domestic economy by residents abroad and by nonresidents).

  • Portfolio investment, which includes long-term debt and equity securities, money market debt instruments, and tradable financial derivatives, including currency and interest rate swaps.

  • Other investment, such as trade credits and borrowing, including IMF credit and loans. Although transactions are classified primarily by instrument, they may also be classified according to their maturity structure, which is important in the analysis of indebtedness.

  • Reserve assets that are available to meet immediate needs. Despite the name, reserve assets in the standard balance of payments accounts are not stocks but changes in gross external assets. These assets include foreign exchange (currency, deposits, and securities), monetary gold, SDRs, and the country’s reserve position in the IMF.4 Reserve assets are under the effective control of the monetary authorities and can be used either directly (to finance payment imbalances), or indirectly (to regulate imbalances by, for instance, intervening in foreign exchange markets to support the value of the currency). Transactions with the IMF affect both reserve assets and reserve liabilities (see Box 4.4).

Classifications of the Balance of Payments

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Source: IMF, Balance of Payments Manual (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1993).

According to the Fifth Edition of the Manual, reserve asset flows exclude those that are not attributable to transactions. Thus, valuation changes resulting from fluctuations in the exchange rate, and the creation of new reserve assets (the monetization of gold or allocations of SDRs) are not included in the data on flows. These items are reflected in the international investment position (the data on stocks).5

Supplementary Information

In the standard presentation of the balance of payments, the financial account does not distinguish between extraordinary and ordinary transactions. As a result, analytical presentations have been developed to highlight items, such as exceptional financing, that may be particularly important in analyses of the balance of payments. Additional data are often prepared for these presentations. The most important supplementary item—exceptional financing—has become increasingly important in recent years, especially in those countries that have experienced debt servicing problems. The main exceptional financing transactions are as follows:

How IMF Transactions Affect the Balance of Payments

Three types of transactions with the IMF can directly affect a country’s balance of payments accounts:

  1. Use of IMF resources. When a country purchases foreign currency from the IMF (for instance through a stand-by arrangement), it increases its financial assets (the foreign exchange received) but at the same time it incurs a financial liability (its obligation vis-à-vis the IMF). Thus, a use of IMF credit is recorded with a positive sign in the Financial Account under “other investment, loans.” Its counterpart is shown with a minus sign as an increase in “reserve assets.”

  2. Changes in special drawing rights (SDRs). SDRs are international reserve assets created by the IMF to supplement countries’ existing assets. If SDRs are used to acquire foreign exchange, to settle financial imbalances, or to extend loans, the transactions are recorded in the balance of payments under reserve asset flows. According to the Fifth Edition, new allocations of SDRs are not recorded. They affect only stocks (the net international investment position of a country).

  3. Changing a “reserve tranche position” in the IMF. This arises from (i) the payment of part of a member’s quota in reserve assets, and (ii) the IMF’s net use of the member’s currency. Changes in a country’s reserve position in the IMF, which include a member’s creditor position under any arrangement to lend to the IMF, are assets from the country’s perspective. Such shifts are recorded as changes in reserve assets in the financial account.

  • The rescheduling of existing debt, which involves replacing an existing contract with one that postpones debt service payments. The main balance of payments items affected by rescheduling are interest payments (shown in the current account) and amortization payments (shown in the financial account). Debt restructuring may cover arrears on interest or principal as well as scheduled interest and principal payments.

  • Arrears on debt servicing, which can be either interest or amortization payments that are past due. Interest arrears are treated as if they have been paid for with a short-term loan—that is, as a scheduled interest payment is recorded as an income debit in the current account, it is offset by a credit in the financial account under short-term liabilities.

  • Debt forgiveness, or the voluntary cancellation by an official creditor of all or part of a debt specified by a contractual arrangement. It is recorded as an official transfer under the capital account.6

  • Equity investment, especially debt-equity swaps. This type of investment involves the exchange of bank claims on debtors, usually at a discount, for nonresident equity investment in a country.

The next part of the chapter discusses how particular subgroups of transactions—especially exceptional financing—are regrouped for analytical purposes.

Classification of Data Sources

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Source: IMF, Balance of Payments Compilation Guide (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1995).

Data Sources and Special Issues in Economies in Transition

As indicated in Box 4.5, there are several sources of data for the balance of payments, including the International Trade Statistics (ITS), the International Transaction Reporting System (ITRS), Enterprise Surveys (ES), collections from households based on specialized statistical surveys, and partner country data. In compiling balance of payments statistics, economies in transition have experienced acute difficulties with the coverage and valuation of transactions, in part because the data collected under central planning were not designed for preparing a balance of payments. Also, since the state controlled the external trade sector, there was no need to survey private traders. During the transition phase, new institutions are being put in place to record all transactions according to international standards. In the meantime, estimates of the balance of payments for these economies should be used with caution, since they are based on poorquality data, especially in terms of coverage. There are three principal issues to consider when analyzing these data: the weakness of the sources, the pervasive problem of underreporting, and the difficulty of accurate valuation.

Weaknesses in Data

Data may be unreliable because the information is not collected properly or does not provide complete coverage. Customs records are often incomplete because border monitoring is not adequate. Enterprise surveys have seen their coverage deteriorate in the initial phases of transition, perhaps reflecting the greater autonomy given to enterprises (statistics for private enterprises and individual traders are especially deficient). The domestic banking system as a source of data is also weak. While data from the banking system are probably more complete than enterprise survey data, they are not necessarily reported to the central bank in a systematic fashion. More importantly, many financial transactions are settled outside the banking system, reducing the comprehensiveness of these data.


The integrity of data can also be compromised if transactions are not fully reported. Unmeasured capital flight is a major problem in countries where confidence in the domestic currency is low. If the authorities suspect that trade is not being reported, they can often cross-check data on imports (exports) against data on the exports (imports) of trading partners. Cross-checks can also be made with other domestic data for selected items. (For example, motor vehicle registrations can be used to assess the validity of recorded motor vehicle imports.) Crossborder transactions such as enterprise arrears have also been seriously underreported in many countries. The available information usually consists only of arrears notified to banks.

Valuation Problems

Valuation practices vary considerably across countries, especially when it comes to the valuation of barter trade. Although in principle transaction prices should be used, some countries use alternative measures such as world market prices, enterprise producer prices (for exports), and domestic wholesale prices (for imports).

Analyzing the External Position7

Notions of Balance

Under the double-entry accounting system, the sum of credit items equals the sum of debit items, so that the overall balance is zero. How then is it possible to have imbalances—surpluses or deficits—in the external sector accounts? A surplus or a deficit arises when a given subgroup of external transactions (shown above the line) is distinguished from another subgroup of transactions (shown below the line). If the above-the-line transactions are in deficit, then the below-the-line transactions are in surplus, and vice versa.

One of the primary purposes of the balance of payments accounts is to provide an indication of the need to adjust an external imbalance. The decision on where to draw the dividing line for analytical purposes requires a somewhat subjective judgment concerning the imbalances that best indicate the need for adjustment. One approach involves distinguishing a subgroup of items that are autonomously determined from transactions that are determined by policy.

The trade balance is the difference between exports and imports of goods. From an analytical point of view, it is somewhat arbitrary to distinguish goods from services. For example, a unit of foreign exchange earned by a freight company strengthens the balance of payments to the same extent as the foreign exchange earned by exporters of goods. Nonetheless, the trade balance is useful in practice, since it is often a timely indicator of trends in the current account balance. The customs authorities are often able to provide data on trade in goods long before data on trade in services—which takes longer to collect—is available.

The current account balance, one of the most useful indicators of an external imbalance, is the difference between credits and debits of goods, services, income, and transfers.8 As explained below, the current account measures the component of the change in an economy’s net foreign asset position attributable to transactions in goods and services.

A current account deficit does not necessarily indicate a need for a policy adjustment, since a deficit may be a temporary imbalance caused by a drop in export prices. But a current account deficit that persists necessitates policy adjustments, since a country cannot continue to finance deficits indefinitely by borrowing abroad or running down international reserves.

The overall balance equals the current account balance plus all capital and financial transactions that are not considered to be financing items. In analytical presentations of the balance of payments, changes in net foreign assets of the monetary authorities and nonautonomous financing items are placed below the line. The overall balance is an important indicator of the external payments position. Deficits are usually financed by a decline in net foreign assets that illustrates the extent to which the central bank has been financing payments imbalances (in the case of a fixed exchange rate regime) or regulating imbalances indirectly by intervening in exchange markets (in the case of a floating exchange rate regime).

Analyzing the Current Account

The key relationship between the balance of payments and a country’s aggregate income and absorption has been discussed in Chapter 2. Ex post, the current account balance is identical to the economy’s resource gap (as measured by the difference between economywide saving and investment). Thus,

Therefore, any analysis of the current account of the balance of payments must consider how changes in saving and investment come about. As seen from equation 4.1, a change in the current account position (such as an increase in the surplus or a decrease in the deficit) must be matched by an increase in national saving relative to investment. Thus, it is important to understand how any policy measures designed to alter the current account balance (through, for example, exchange rates, tariffs, quotas, or export incentives) affect saving and investment behavior.

The current account also reflects the gap between income and absorption in the economy. Thus,

As this relationship indicates, improving a country’s current account balance requires that resources be released either through a decrease in domestic absorption relative to income or through an increase in national income relative to the rise in absorption. It should be noted, however, that equations 4.1 and 4.2 by themselves do not provide sufficient information for an analysis of the current account, because they do not reflect the various interactions and behavior of agents in the economy. For example, changes in absorption are influenced by changes in disposable income, so that equation 4.2 cannot be used to analyze directly the impact of a change in income on the external current account. The two equations nevertheless incorporate the basic macroeconomic framework in which the current account is embedded.

By definition, the current account balance is always matched by net claims on the rest of the world—in other words, the change in net foreign assets of nonbank entities or nonmonetary financial flows (ΔFI) and the change in net foreign assets of the banking system or monetary financial flows (ΔRES). This relationship, which is summarized below, derives from the balance of payments identity, which states that the sum of all credit items must be offset exactly by the sum of all debit items. Therefore,



Equation 4.3 shows that the net provision of resources to or from the rest of the world—as measured by the current account balance9—is matched by a corresponding change in net claims on the rest of the world. For example, a current account surplus is reflected either in an increase in net official or private claims on nonresidents or in the acquisition of reserve assets by the monetary authorities. But a current account deficit implies that the net acquisition of resources from the rest of the world must be paid for by either liquidating the country’s foreign assets or by increasing its liabilities to nonresidents. Thus, the balance of payments identity shown in equation 4.3 can be viewed as the budget constraint for the entire economy.

As we have seen above, the current account reflects saving and investment of the government and nongovernment sectors. A given current account balance may be consistent with a number of combinations of private and public saving and investment behavior. For example, a deficit in the current account could stem from a private consumption boom or a sharp rise in investment or it could be brought about by a sharp deterioration in the fiscal position, with or without an improvement in private sector saving. Thus the current account balance per se, while an important indicator, is not, by itself, indicative of the need for policy action and even less of the appropriate policy response. It is nevertheless useful as a warning signal—a “red flag”—that alerts policymakers to the possibility of unsound policy. In all cases, the need for policy response and the choice of the appropriate policy will depend on a closer examination of the source of the imbalance.

The conventional view that a large current account deficit, whether originating in decisions of the private or the public sector, is a cause for concern and appropriate corrective action on the part of the government has recently come under some scrutiny in an influential paper. Max Corden10 analyzed the validity of the “new view” of the current account, viz. the view that if the current account deficit reflects entirely the decisions of private savers and investors, then it should not call forth any governmental policy response. As Corden noted, while the new view has an apparent plausibility in a world dominated by private capital flows, it needs to be heavily qualified on several counts. A private spending boom financed by capital inflows could be based on unsound judgments and could end abruptly. Private external borrowing can have spillover effects on other domestic borrowers, in effect, contaminating all debts by residents and therefore the risks of such contamination need to be watched by the authorities. The changes in the real exchange rate brought about as a result of the current account balance also need to be watched carefully by the authorities because they could reverse themselves and lead to general macroeconomic instability. In sum, the macroeconomic consequences of unsustainable current account imbalances are too severe for the authorities to take a “hands-off” attitude toward such imbalances. As a general rule, therefore, the “new view,” sometimes called the “Lawson doctrine,” is not valid.

This framework for analyzing the current account balance can be used in many situations independently of the exchange rate regime. For example, if the exchange rate is pegged, then the net demand or supply of foreign exchange at the pegged exchange rate will determine the reserve assets transactions (ΔRES). At the other extreme, under a pure float and with no official intervention, ΔRES = 0, and so CAB = −ΔFI. With a managed float, foreign exchange is bought or sold by the central bank in order to adjust the path of the exchange rate.11 Under a fixed-exchange regime and little capital mobility, countries can afford to run current account deficits only for a limited time period. If a country continues to run a deficit beyond what can be financed through sustainable capital inflows, sooner or later, expectations about an exchange rate devaluation will trigger a foreign exchange crisis well before international reserves are exhausted.12 This suggests that in the absence of capital mobility and under an exchange rate peg, the current account must be monitored closely so as to avoid a sudden speculative attack on a currency and a balance of payments crisis.

For a discussion of the issue of how to assess the sustainability of a current account position, see Box 4.6.

Analyzing the Trade Account

Changes in the Structure of Trade

An analysis of trade flows requires information such as the commodity structure, the geographical destination of exports and the origin of imports. A summary of such information is shown for Poland in Tables 4.3 and 4.4. Data on trade flows (desegregated by trading partners) are available in the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics.13

Table 4.1.

Commodity Composition of Trade1

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Sources: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland—Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996); and Liam P. Ebrill and others, Poland: The Path to a Market Economy, Occasional Paper No. 113 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1994).

Since there were considerable problems collecting trade statistics during these years, the data indicate broad orders of magnitudes for the various categories of exports and imports.

Table 4.2.

Direction of Trade

(In percent of total)

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Source: IMF, Direction of Trade Statistics Yearbook (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1994).
Table 4.3.

Balance of Payments1

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

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Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).

Convertible currency trade on a payments basis from commercial banks.

Table 4.4.

Current Account of Balance of Payments in Convertible and Nonconvertible Currencies,1

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

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Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland—Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund,1996).

Represents the summation of transactions, expressed in U.S. dollars. Transactions in transferable rubles were converted into U.S. dollars at the cross-commercial rate.

With more detailed information on values, prices, and volumes of desegregated trade, analysts can answer questions such as the following:

  • Is the change in the terms of trade concentrated in a few commodities that are particularly important or whose prices are prone to wide fluctuations? In this context, it is often useful to have separate data on energy and nonenergy prices, since oil products often have significant weight in imports (or exports, in the case of the oil-producing countries). Agricultural exporters may focus particularly on developments in agricultural prices and the volume of agricultural exports.

  • Are the changes in exports and imports concentrated in particular geographical regions? This question is particularly important for the states of the former Soviet Union and members of the now-defunct Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), as they integrate themselves fully into the world economy.

Trade Policies

Along with exchange rate policies and the state of domestic and foreign demand, trade flows are affected in an important way by trade policies, comprising tariffs, import or export quotas, import or export subsidies, and other incentives or disincentives to trade. Trade policy strategies are broadly divided into two groups, outward-oriented and inward-oriented. An outwardly oriented strategy is one based on trade policies that do not discriminate between production for the domestic market and exports or between purchases of domestic goods and foreign goods. This neutral or nondiscriminatory strategy is sometimes referred to as an export-promotion strategy. Evidence suggests that most successful exporting economies (such as those in East Asia) followed broadly neutral trade policies.14 By contrast, an inwardly oriented trade strategy is one that uses trade and industrial incentives that favor production for the home over the export market.

Current Account Sustainability

A current account surplus implies that the country is accumulating net international assets (broadly defined). Conversely, a current account deficit implies that it is running down its foreign assets or accumulating foreign liabilities. Thus, the current account can also be defined as the change in the net international investment position of a country. When this position is negative, the country is a net debtor to the rest of the world. Countries, like individuals, are bound by an intertemporal budget constraint; therefore, if the country is a net debtor, then the economy must run current account surpluses in the future with a present discounted value equal to its initial net debt. This ability to generate future current account surpluses (excluding interest payments) sufficient to repay existing debt is known as solvency. Thus, a country is solvent if the present value of future current account surpluses is at least equal to its current external debt.

The notion of solvency, while important, is not easy to assess in practice, because if large enough future current account surpluses are assumed, any path of current account deficits can be consistent with intertemporal solvency. A more restricted notion of sustainability can be defined by assuming a continuation of present policies into the future under an unchanged macroeconomic environment. Thus, the current stance of policies is “sustainable” if its continuation in the future does not violate the solvency or budget constraint. In practice, the notion of current account sustainability is more complex because it reflects the interaction between saving and investment decisions of foreign investors. An alternative way of assessing current account sustainability is to ask whether the current account and the underlying behavior of the government and the private sector, if continued, would entail the need for a drastic shift in policies or a crisis (e.g., an exchange rate collapse or an external debt default). If the answer is yes, the current account deficit is unsustainable. The policy change or the crisis can be triggered by a domestic or external shock, involving a shift in investor confidence, brought about by a change in their perception of the country’s ability or willingness to meet its external obligations.1


See Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti and Assaf Razin, “Persistent Current Account Deficits: A Warning Signal?” International Journal of Finance and Economics, Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 1996).

Measuring the extent to which a trade policy regime—involving numerous tariffs, quotas, and export subsidies—departs from the idea of neutrality is a complex task. Several different indicators of the bias of a trade regime have been developed in the literature on the analysis of trade policies (see Box 4.7). Quantitative restrictions on trade and a complex structure of tariffs are still common in many transition economies. Often, however, adequate information to construct indicators of bias in the trade policy regime may not be available, and a rough-and-ready assessment of the neutrality of the regime needs to be made. It is important to take into account the four principal factors that determine the overall structure of incentives for exportables: (i) the degree of any exchange rate overvaluation; (ii) the use of direct controls on trade such as quotas and import licenses; (iii) the effective rate of protection; and (iv) the use of export incentives, including direct and indirect export subsidies.15

It is important to understand the extent to which the volume of trade has been affected by policy, both domestic and foreign. Certain domestic policy measures in particular influence the course of trade. Reductions in quotas give enterprises and the private sector increased autonomy to import and export. Changes in taxes on traded goods and services (such as reductions in import duties, the lifting of export taxes, and domestic price liberalization) encourage trade. A stable exchange rate regime promotes confidence in an economy’s stability.

Measuring Neutrality of Trade Regimes1

A widely used measure of the bias in trade regimes is based on the notion of effective protection. The trade bias (tb) is defined as:1

where the effective rate of protection (ERP) for any good captures the protection accorded to the value added in its production and not to the finished product. It is given by


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It is important to note that

  • A tb ratio of 1 implies neutrality while a ratio greater than one implies that importables have on average higher protection (nominal or effective, as the case may be) than exportables. This implies a bias in favor of import substitution. A ratio of less than one implies a bias in favor of export promotion.

  • The use of any aggregate measure of protection for the economy as a whole can be misleading since the effective rate of protection averaged across different industries can be zero (i.e., implying no protection) while in fact the rates of protection vary widely across industries. Full neutrality of a trade regime must therefore require no significant variation across the tradable goods industries.


This box draws on the discussion of the neutrality of trade regimes in World Development Report 1987 (Washington: Oxford University Press for the World Bank, 1987).


If υ′ and υ stand for the domestic and world prices of a good, then the same formula as in equation 2 would yield the nominal rate of protection, and a simpler indicator of trade orientation can be constructed using nominal rather than effective rates of protection of importables and exportables as shown in equation 2.

Policy changes in countries that are primary trading partners can also significantly affect trade. Changes in quantitative trade restrictions and tariff barriers in partner countries encourage exports. Special trade agreements, especially regional trade agreements, facilitate cross-border trade within a specified geographic area.

An important objective in analyzing trade developments is to identify those policy changes that have had a significant impact on trade movements. In macroeconomic analysis, there is a trade-off between obtaining the richer understanding a detailed analysis offers and identifying the main structural trends that are most important for projecting aggregate trade. Merchandise trade flows are influenced by a variety of factors that affect the supply of and demand for traded goods, but macroeconomic analysis focuses primarily on domestic and foreign demand and the relative prices of traded goods, which are in turn affected by changes in the exchange rate. Analyzing demand in the domestic and principal foreign markets throws light on the factors affecting the volumes of imports and exports, respectively. Demand in the domestic economy can also influence a country’s exports—for example, by making exporting attractive in a period of slack domestic demand.

The most critical influence on trade flows in the long run may well be price competitiveness, which generally is measured by the real exchange rate or the nominal exchange rate adjusted for changes in relative unit labor costs at home as compared with those in trading partner countries (Box 4.8). In transition and developing economies, where data on unit labor costs are generally not available, a real exchange rate based on relative consumer prices often serves as a useful proxy for a cost-based measure of competitiveness. It is useful to compare the prevailing exchange rate with the exchange rate during a period in the past when the trade or the current account was considered to be in broad balance.16 As noted above, changes in the trade policy regime, including tariffs and quotas, can also have a major influence on trade flows. And in many economies, it is also important to consider nonprice aspects of competitiveness such as quality, timely delivery, and packaging, particularly when exporters are attempting to break into new markets, as they often do in transition economies.

Assessing the Exchange Rate1

Assessing the appropriateness of a country’s exchange rate is a complex undertaking that requires taking into account a number of factors. The following indicators are often considered relevant to this assessment.

1. The real exchange rate

The level of the real exchange rate is frequently used as an indicator of the need for exchange rate adjustment. A measure of the real exchange rate based on the ratio of unit labor costs (wage costs adjusted for the productivity of labor) at home to those in trading partner countries or, in the absence of unit labor cost indexes, an index of relative consumer prices, is the most appropriate real exchange rate indicator. It is common to compare the current real exchange rate with the real exchange rate at some date in the past when the current account was considered to be in a satisfactory condition.

2. Foreign exchange reserves

Falling official reserves can indicate an inappropriate exchange rate. The fall in reserves can reflect either a current account deficit or a movement of funds out of the domestic currency on the capital and financial account, suggesting that residents and foreigners lack confidence in the country’s policies. However, because foreign exchange reserves can be augmented by borrowing, and central banks can make reserves look larger than they are, movements in foreign assets may not be a good indicator of the need to adjust the exchange rate.

3. The current account

The size of the present and prospective levels of the current account balance are a major criterion for judging the appropriateness of the exchange rate. Under a fixed exchange rate regime, if projections of the current account deficit show that it cannot be financed by drawing down reserves or through continuous borrowing, a devaluation will eventually be necessary. This criterion suggests that a devaluation may be appropriate even if the current account is not at present in deficit. If, however, a current account deficit is temporary, a devaluation may not be needed. The current account balance may not always be a good indicator because it reacts relatively slowly to changes in the real exchange rate.

4. The parallel market exchange rate

Many countries have parallel or black markets for foreign exchange. The exchange rate prevailing in these markets often provides a reasonable indication of the degree of disequilibrium in the official exchange rate. However, as these markets can be thin and subject to the influence of a few dealers, caution is needed in interpreting this indicator. A very large discount on domestic currency in the parallel market, however, is often an indicator of an overvalued exchange rate.


Based on Stanley Fischer, “Devaluation and Inflation,” The Open Economy, EDI Series in Economic Development (Washington: Economic Development Institute of the World Bank, 1992).

Services, Income, and Transfers

Service transactions are a heterogeneous group, comprising 11 different categories in the standard presentation of the balance of payments. The major subgroups include transportation and travel (credits reflecting tourist receipts and debits reflecting spending abroad by residents), insurance, financial, and consultancy services.

Income covers both labor income and financial income flows. Labor income refers to earnings of nonresident workers. Financial income (or “investment income, net”) represents receipts from and payments on financial assets and liabilities. For indebted countries, interest payments due on external foreign debt often constitute the largest income subitem. This negative item is also one of the two components of debt servicing. The important credit items are interest earned on foreign exchange reserves and, for creditor countries, interest received on loans.

Changes in general government current transfers are largely dependent on decisions made by donor countries and therefore can be less predictable. The main component of private current transfers is usually workers’ remittances, which reflect the number of workers living abroad permanently and the incentives for transferring funds, particularly expectations concerning the exchange rate and the taxation of such income.17

To the extent that a country modifies its restrictions on service transactions by liberalizing the amounts of foreign exchange provided for foreign travel abroad, it is appropriate to identify the impact of such policy changes.18

The Capital and Financial Account and External Debt

As we have seen, a current account deficit must be financed by increases in foreign liabilities or by declines in foreign assets. These financial flows constitute the capital and financial account of the balance of payments.19 This section examines these flows (excluding movements in net reserve assets).

The capital and financial account records an economy’s net foreign borrowing and capital transfers. The nonmonetary financial flows (ΔFI) that make up the account are the sum of foreign direct investment (FDI) and net foreign borrowing (NFB) and, together with monetary financing (ΔRES), equal the current account balance.20 Thus, the sources of current account financing can be summarized as

The financial flows associated with a current account deficit involve a reduction in the net foreign asset position of the economy. Therefore, as discussed above, an important policy issue a current account deficit raises is whether the government can service the associated change in the net foreign investment position without modifying its economic policies—for example, by reducing absorption—or by bringing about changes in interest or exchange rates. In general, servicing the debt is easier if capital inflow is used to increase productive capacity. If a spontaneous financial inflow does not result, the government must adjust its policies to attract private investment or, alternatively, seek borrowing abroad. If it does neither of these things, it will need to draw down its international reserves. If the reserves have been already depleted, the country may be forced to endure an unplanned adjustment in its absorption. It is far better to have a planned, orderly adjustment program that can forestall the haphazard adjustment forced on a country when foreign financing is not available.

Debt Stocks and Debt-Creating Flows

The stock of gross external debt can be defined as the amount of outstanding contractual liabilities to nonresidents. The amount of debt outstanding covers only that part of a loan that has actually been disbursed. Any undisbursed loan commitments are not part of gross debt and are not recorded in balance of payments data until disbursement takes place. The term contractual is also an important part of the definition of gross debt. Debt instruments such as long-term loans, bonds, short-term loans, and trade credits involve contractual obligations to pay interest (either at a fixed or variable rate) and principal. Incurring these obligations adds to a country’s gross debt.

Within the capital and financial account, most flows are debt creating. There is therefore a link between the stock of gross debt and the flows recorded in the capital and financial account. The major links are captured in the following equation as


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This equation states that debt at the end of a given year is broadly equal to debt at the end of the previous year, augmented by net debt-creating flows—that is, by new disbursements minus amortization (repayments of principal).

Equation 4.5 can be only a rough approximation, for many reasons. First, debt stocks are subject to valuation adjustments owing to the fact that debt is contracted in various currencies. The stock of debt, measured (for example) in U.S. dollars, may change because the value of debt denominated in another currency (such as the deutsche mark) changes in dollar terms when the dollar depreciates or appreciates against that currency. Second, interest is sometimes capitalized, adding to the stock of debt any unpaid interest obligations (interest arrears). Third, outstanding debt is sometimes canceled or written off.

It is clear from the above discussion that debt-creating flows contained in the capital and financial account of the balance of payments should be viewed in the context of a country’s gross external indebtedness.21

Indicators of External Debt

When a country borrows abroad, it must “service” the loan by paying interest at a rate specified in the loan contract and by paying back principal (amortization) over an agreed time period. The interest component is found in the current account (under “income, debits”), while amortization is recorded in the capital and financial account. In general, countries that have borrowed heavily abroad in the past must devote a sizable portion of their export receipts to servicing foreign debt, limiting the amount of foreign exchange left for financing imports. In assessing the cost of debt servicing, it is useful to relate these costs to total exports of goods and services.

Measuring the debt burden raises a number of complex issues. Conventionally, the debt burden is calculated as the stock of debt in relation to an index of available resources, such as exports of goods and services or gross domestic product (GDP). But such indices do not capture the impact of debt relief or of lower interest rates on the cost of servicing the debt. Conceptually, analysts should compare the present value of future debt servicing obligations with the present value of future export receipts. This approach requires a certain amount of information and can be sensitive to the discount rate used to calculate the present value. In practice, then, three ratios are used to analyze the debt burden:

  • the ratio of scheduled debt service payments to exports of goods and services, which measures the impact of debt servicing obligations on the foreign exchange cash flow;

  • the ratio of scheduled (or actual) interest payments to exports of goods and services, which measures the current cost of the debt stock; and

  • total outstanding debt as a ratio of GDP (or of exports of goods and services), which reflects the long-term sustainability of the debt burden.

The World Bank’s debt reporting system uses critical values of two debt indicators to classify countries according to the severity of their indebtedness: the ratio of the present value of total debt service (PV) to GNP, and the ratio of the present value of total debt service to total exports.22 The indicators are based on the present value concept rather than the value of scheduled debt service in order to account for differences in the terms of the loans. A country is regarded as severely indebted if the present value of total debt service to GNP exceeds 80 percent or if the present value of total debt service to exports exceeds 220 percent.

Although these ratios may be helpful in signaling possible debt problems, the economic circumstances of countries with similar ratios may differ. These ratios should therefore be used with caution and only as a starting point for a country-specific analysis of debt sustainability. A full assessment of a country’s debt position must take into account the overall macroeconomic situation and balance of payments prospects. Box 4.9 discusses the sustainability of external debt.

An issue of increasing concern has been the fiscal burden of external debt. In many countries with external debt difficulties, scheduled debt service payments absorb a major proportion of government revenues, reducing the government’s room to maneuver in terms of fiscal adjustment. External debt sustainability is therefore closely linked to fiscal sustainability.

The Sustainability of External Debt

A country’s external position is considered sustainable if the government can be expected to meet its external obligations in full without rescheduling its debt, seeking debt relief, or accumulating arrears over the medium or long term. The key indicators for assessing sustainability are:

  • The ratio of scheduled debt service to exports of goods and services;

  • The external financing gap that remains after allowing for expected inflows in the form of grant receipts, loan disbursements, and any commercial capital flows; and

  • The ratio of the net present value (NPV) of the debt to exports. The NPV is defined as the discounted present value of all future debt service payments due on existing external debt, relative to the discounted value of the export receipts.

A country’s external debt position is generally considered sustainable over the projection period if scheduled debt service payments decline to 20–25 percent or less of exports of goods and services, if financing gaps are eliminated, and if the ratio of the NPV of debt-to-exports declines to below 200–250 percent of exports.

The concept of sustainability differs importantly from that of medium-term external viability, which precludes recourse to further exceptional financing (such as the use of IMF resources). If exceptional financing is necessary, a country’s external position cannot be regarded as viable.

Direct Foreign Investment and Capital Flows

Direct Foreign Investment

When investors acquire equity in a domestic enterprise, there are no contractual obligations. Because direct foreign investment does not add to external debt, it is termed “non-debt-creating” (see Box 4.10). In this sense, it contrasts with all other liabilities of the financial account, which either add to gross debt (in the case of inflows) or subtract from it (in the case of repayments such as amortization).

Within the debt-creating flows, it is useful to isolate portfolio investment, which includes debt and equity securities.23 These are increasingly important to countries that have access to international capital markets, which indicates that foreign investors have confidence in the financial condition of the country issuing these debt instruments. Besides securities, portfolio investment also includes relatively newer money market debt instruments (including tradable financial derivatives) that allow debtors to hedge against exchange rate or interest rate risks.

Direct Foreign Investment1

Foreign direct investment takes place when a firm in one country creates or expands a subsidiary in another. The distinctive feature of this type of capital inflow is that it involves not only a transfer of resources, but also the acquisition of partial or full control. Foreign direct investment is valued by countries not only because it does not create a debt obligation for the receiving country, but also because it is an important vehicle for the transfer of technical and managerial skills from abroad. The benefits of such technology transfers are often seen as outweighing the capital flow itself.

This thinking explains why it is not only developing and transition economies that are keen to implement policies that attract foreign investment flows, but also industrial countries. It should be noted that such investment inflows do give rise to some outward resource transfers when the profits and dividends on the investment are repatriated. However, these flows depend on the profitability of the investment and are not binding like contractual debt service payments. Multinational firms are the main vehicles through which the bulk of foreign direct investment takes place.


For an analysis of the role of foreign direct investment in international capital flows, see Edward M. Graham, “Foreign Direct Investment in the World Economy,” IMF Working Paper 95/59 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1995).

In addition to examining liabilities by type and maturity of debt instruments, it is also helpful to analyze trends in stocks and flows by institutional sector.24 In particular, the general government sector and the nongovernment sector (which can be split between banks and enterprises) are analyzed separately, since they have separate determinants. Government flows are determined mainly by budgetary needs. The net financial flows of the government, as recorded in the balance of payments, should be identical to the external financing flows of the budget (ignoring any valuation adjustments resulting from exchange rate movements, since a country’s budget is presented in local currency terms).25

Capital Flows

In contrast, flows of private capital respond to yields on assets held domestically and abroad. With the growing integration of world financial markets, and as more economies develop domestic financial market instruments, a growing volume of private capital flows should be seen as normal and desirable. However, in many transition economies, domestic financial market instruments are underdeveloped, and the outflow of private capital (often not recorded in official statistics) reflects a lack of confidence in the domestic economy, especially in the presence of high inflation, a depreciating exchange rate, and the expectation that yields from domestic financial assets will be inferior to the risk-adjusted yields from foreign financial assets (Box 4.11).

Reserves and Financing

Gross and Net Reserve Assets

The use of gross reserves has traditionally been the main source of financing balance of payments deficits and for supporting an exchange rate peg. In today’s world of floating exchange rates, however, many countries find other means of financing imbalances, including foreign borrowing or changing domestic policies. Thus, as they are acquired and used, gross reserve assets do not necessarily reflect the size of a payments imbalance. The monetary authorities may also have other motives for holding reserves—for instance, to maintain confidence in the domestic currency and economy, to satisfy domestic legal requirements, or to serve as a basis for foreign borrowing. Analysts should keep these considerations in mind in examining the reasons for changes in reserves. Net foreign assets are calculated as gross foreign assets minus foreign liabilities of the banking system.

Using Reserve Assets to Finance a Deficit

Fundamentally, the appropriateness of using reserve assets to finance a current account deficit rather than adjusting domestic policies depends on the extent to which the deficit is regarded as temporary or reversible. The size of a country’s reserve assets and its ability to borrow to supplement these assets limit the extent to which reserves can be used to finance a deficit. In the case of temporary shocks, such as poor harvests, reserves can be a useful shock absorber, allowing for a temporary excess of absorption over income. Reserves can also be used to finance a seasonal swing in the current account balance. If the current account imbalance is expected to persist, however, adjustment measures will be necessary. It is important to note that in practice, it is also difficult to judge ex ante whether a current account deficit is temporary or permanent. It may therefore be prudent to initiate some adjustment measures in conjunction with a drawdown of reserves (Box 4.8). Because reserve levels frequently function as signals to foreign investors indicating the policy and investment climate in the country (including the need for an exchange rate change), an adequate reserve level is important in sustaining investors’ confidence.26

Recording Changes in Reserve Assets

With any definition of the overall balance, it is important to be clear about which transactions are included above the line and which appear below the line. From an analytical perspective, it is useful to group all autonomous transactions above the line and to place below the line transactions authorities control that can be used to finance autonomous flows. However, there are practical difficulties in distinguishing autonomous and policy-controlled transactions; for instance, two extremes of below-the-line classifications can be distinguished. One includes only movements in gross reserve assets held by the monetary authorities; the other, all transactions of the domestic banking system.

Under the first option, if changes in gross reserve assets are taken as the sole source of financing the above-the-line transactions, then any liabilities of the central bank are necessarily classified above the line. However, some central bank liabilities are special, in that they allow gross reserves to be reconstituted. For example, if a central bank decides to use IMF credit (recorded as an increase in liabilities), then gross reserve assets need not be run down. Another example of financing that augments reserves is borrowing abroad from a line of credit available to the central bank. It is therefore usual, in analytical presentations of the balance of payments, to include such reserve-related liabilities below the line. Thus, changes in net foreign assets are grouped below the line.

Capital Flows and the Balance of Payments

In recent years, capital flows have played an increasingly important role in the balance of payments of a number of countries. Capital flows, defined as the increase in net international indebtedness of an economy, are measured by the balance in the capital and financial account of the balance of payments (excluding reserve assets). In recent years, after a period of capital outflows and debt servicing difficulties, a number of developing countries in Asia and Latin America and some transition economies in Europe have begun to experience sizable capital inflows as nonresidents begin to invest in the economy and the flight of resident’s capital is reversed. These capital inflows have helped to finance larger current account deficits associated with higher imports and higher economic growth. It also permitted buildup of reserves- Despite these benefits, the sudden surges of these sizable inflows have also caused some concern for economic policymakers, because of the difficulties that large-scale inflows of capital can cause for the management of macroeconomic policy (see next chapter on Monetary Accounts and Analysis). There are four important concerns:

  • Capital inflows can be temporary and hence quickly reversed.

  • Capital inflows can induce growth in the money supply and cause domestic inflation to rise if the monetary authorities intervene in the foreign exchange market to buy the excess supply of foreign exchange. These inflationary consequences can be avoided if the intervention is sterilized.

  • If the monetary authorities do not intervene, the capital inflows can cause the exchange rate of the domestic currency to appreciate.

  • Capital inflows can finance a temporary boom in consumption, which will eventually lead to a cutback in absorption in order to service the accumulated debt.1


See Guillermo Calvo, Leonardo Leiderman, and Carmen Reinhart, “The Capital Flows Problem: Concepts and Issues,” PPAA/93/10 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1993); and Guillermo Calvo, Ratna Sahay, and Carlos Vegh, “Capital Flows in Central and Eastern Europe: Evidence and Policy Options,” IMF Working Paper 95/57 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1995).

The second option—which is based on a much broader definition of net foreign assets—includes all transactions of the banking system below the line. However, commercial banks are usually free to choose their foreign asset and liability structure, and such flows are driven largely by market forces (that is, are autonomous transactions). It is only when the central bank has direct and effective control over commercial banks and foreign assets that these assets can be considered for inclusion below the line. Including changes in net foreign assets of the banking system below the line provides a direct link between balance of payments transactions and domestic liquidity creation. Chapter 5 on Monetary Accounts and Analysis provides a fuller discussion of the link between the swings in total net foreign assets and the domestic money supply.

Analytically then, the most useful definition of the overall balance places all transactions that are under the direct control of the monetary authorities below the line. These transactions include changes in gross reserve assets held by the monetary authorities, and easily identified fluctuations in central bank liabilities used to finance the balance of payments.

It is important to remember that the overall balance is not necessarily determined by the trade and capital accounts. Indeed, as discussion of the monetary approach to the balance of payments in Chapter 5 makes clear, the opposite may be true. An increase in the demand for a country’s currency relative to other currencies may be reflected in an overall balance of payments deficit, in turn causing shifts in the current as well as financial and capital account balances. More generally, the changes in assets and liabilities of the banking system are closely linked to the overall balance of payments, and this link underpins the monetary approach to the balance of payments.27

Reserve Adequacy

Although conventionally, the level of reserves has been assessed in relation to the projected total import bill of goods and services, more recent indicators of reserve adequacy have focused on financial vulnerability.28 Whichever indicator of foreign exchange adequacy is used, it is important to keep in mind that the nature of the exchange rate regime plays a part in determining the adequacy of the reserve level. Traditionally, as we have seen, the presumption has been that a country with a fixed exchange rate needs larger reserves than a country with a floating exchange rate regime, since reserves are the only cushion against shocks. However, in practice, if confidence in the authorities’ ability to maintain supporting policies is high, a country with a fixed exchange rate may not require large reserves to defend its currency. For example, the Polish authorities were able to maintain a fixed exchange rate in the early stages of their reform program in 1991 despite only a moderate level of reserves, because their economic policies commanded a high degree of confidence in financial markets. Even with a managed float, a lack of credible economic policies can quickly lead to capital flight and may deplete reserves, even if the authorities allow the exchange rate to depreciate. Thus, at a fundamental level, the credibility of the authorities’ economic policies and the confidence that market participants place in them are key to assessing the adequacy of reserves. Indeed, it is credible policies that allow the authorities to augment reserves by borrowing abroad at favorable terms; such borrowed reserves can potentially provide a major supplement to the country’s own reserves. In the case of Poland, the stabilization fund provided by the IMF played an important role in boosting the credibility of policies, although the fund was never used.

Reserves in Relation to Imports

This indicator measures a country’s gross international reserves in relation to its monthly import bill (annual import bill/12).29 Thus,

A general rule of thumb has been that gross reserves should be equal to at least three months of imports. Countries with six months of import coverage enjoy a relatively comfortable reserve position. However, this rule of thumb evolved during a period when controls on international financial flows were much more extensive than they are today. Therefore, in assessing the appropriateness of the reserve level, analysts should keep in mind a number of factors, including (i) the openness of the capital and financial account; (ii) the stock of highly liquid liabilities; (iii) the country’s access to short-term borrowing facilities; and (iv) the seasonality of imports and exports of the country.

The average level of import coverage, based on actual data for a sample of IMF members (excluding those whose external position is considered difficult) was 4.5 months of imports in 1994, appreciably above the three-month rule of thumb. However, the coverage level for the Baltic countries, Russia, and the other states of the former Soviet Union has been considerably lower, falling below the three-month benchmark in many cases.

Broader Concepts of Reserve Adequacy

In recent years, as world capital markets have become increasingly integrated and the size and volatility of private capital flows have risen sharply, the traditional notion of reserve adequacy (three months of import coverage) is being reassessed by policymakers as well as economic analysts. This reassessment has been prompted, in part, by the speed with which even a sizable level of international reserves can be depleted in the face of a crisis in confidence and the associated sudden capital outflow, as was demonstrated in Mexico in late 1994 and early 1995.

The debate on reserve adequacy in a world of volatile capital flows has focused on indicators of financial vulnerability. In this context, it has been noted that analysts must consider not only traditional flow variables (such as the external current account balance and the fiscal balance) but also stock variables (such as the ratio of domestic money supply, expressed in foreign currency, to the foreign currency value of international reserves).30 The rationale behind this thinking is that international reserves are used to back domestic currency in the event of a crisis in confidence. Reserves also need to be considered in the context of the maturity structure of public sector liabilities. An excess of short-term liabilities in foreign currency increases a country’s financial vulnerability. The degree of openness of both the economy, as reflected in the ratio of external trade to GDP, and the external capital account is also important. It helps to determine the extent of a country’s exposure to risk from volatile capital flows and consequently affects the need for a larger reserve cushion to absorb unanticipated shocks.

In some cases, reserve holdings are related to the variability (variance) and/or volume of foreign exchange transactions. While these measures on their own are not good indicators of reserve adequacy, they are useful in assessing the need for reserves in countries with mature financial systems. A measure of reserve adequacy defined as the ratio of reserves to the monetary base has been found useful for countries desiring to shift to a fixed exchange rate in the form of a currency board. The rationale behind this indicator is that if gross international reserves are sufficient to cover base money, they provide a benchmark against which the adequacy of reserves to defend the exchange rate can be measured.

It should be noted that while the three-month import coverage and the monetary base rules tend, on average, to indicate that broadly similar levels of reserves are appropriate for countries with either pegged or managed floating exchange rates, most transition economies find the three-month rule overly demanding.

The quantitative indicators of reserve adequacy discussed above, while they provide useful rules of thumb, are not a substitute for a careful qualitative assessment of a country’s macroeconomic situation and policies and of the financial markets’ perception of those policies.

Exceptional Financing

By definition, the overall balance ex post is always in balance. Therefore, any disequilibrium will necessarily be financed by one of several methods. Besides using reserve assets and/or drawing on the IMF, countries may resort to exceptional financing arrangements to finance external payments imbalances. Exceptional financing arrangements include the following:

  • exceptional grants, including debt forgiveness;

  • the rescheduling of external debt obligations;

  • the accumulation of arrears of principal and interest on foreign debt; and

  • debt/equity swaps (exceptional direct investment).

Exceptional financing is not autonomous, since governments are often involved in negotiations to arrange it, especially in debt-burdened countries. Nor is it likely to be repeated year after year in predictable amounts. For these reasons, and since exceptional financing is controlled in part by the government and in part by foreign creditors, it is usual to isolate such transactions below the line in analyzing balance of payments developments—that is, to consider them as a special type of financing that will not be repeated on a regular basis.31

Developments in the Balance of Payments and the Exchange Rate

Since the inception of economic reform in 1990, Poland’s foreign trade has expanded dramatically, with total foreign trade as a percent of GDP rising from an estimated 18 percent in 1989 to 38 percent in 1994. This expansion is also associated with a shift from trade with markets of the former CMEA to markets in Western Europe and has been accompanied by a gradual widening of the inflows of capital, which accelerated rapidly starting in late 1994. If the large volume of estimated unrecorded trade is taken into account, Poland has registered a surplus in its external current account for most of the period since reform. With steadily rising capital account inflows, Poland has added substantially to its gross official international reserves.

The Current Account

It is important to note that Poland’s official balance of payments statistics show a deficit on the current account for 1991–94. However, as noted above, there is substantial evidence that a significant amount of cross-border trade and tourism receipts have gone unrecorded. Foreigners have made millions of visits to—and transactions in—the numerous formal and informal markets on Poland’s borders. If reasonable estimates of nonresidents’ unrecorded purchases of Polish goods and services are included, the “true” current account shows a sizeable surplus (see Chart 4.1).

Chart 4.1.
Chart 4.1.

Poland: Current and Capital Accounts

(In billions of U.S. dollars)

Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland—Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).1 Excluding valuation effects.2 On a cash basis. Hence, these estimates differ from those in the balance of payments presentation, which are on an accrual basis.

These “unofficial” transactions are not captured in the current account, but two types of “official” transactions can provide an idea of the extent of the underreporting. First, the official data classify sales of foreign currency for zloty in the small foreign exchange bureaus (known as kantors) as short-term capital inflows. These sales more likely reflect receipts from unrecorded exports and tourism receipts; therefore, they should appear under the current account. Second, private transfers are estimated by the change in the households’ foreign exchange deposits. A drop in these deposits (and therefore in net private transfers) during 1991–94 more accurately reflects residents’ sales of dollars for zlotys as confidence in the domestic currency returns.

The inflows underlying these items are generated mainly by transactions involving border trade and tourism, as well as workers’ remittances and other transfers. Adjusted for these changes, the current account shows estimated surpluses of 2–3 percent of GDP in 1991–92 and again in 1994. Independent information based on surveys of border trade and tourism support this reinterpretation of the official statistics.

The Capital Account

External debt restructuring and macroeconomic uncertainty dominated developments in the capital account during 1991–93. Therefore, medium- to long-term inflows, foreign direct investment, and portfolio inflows were relatively small. Overall, the adjusted capital account deficit was equal to almost 4 percent of GDP in 1991 and still stood at the equivalent of 0.5 percent of GDP in 1993–94. After an increase in foreign direct investment and large portfolio inflows, especially on the short-term account, the capital account is estimated to have turned around sharply in 1995, registering a large surplus. There was a sharp pickup in foreign direct investment, and foreign investors also became interested in the equity and Treasury bill markets, reflecting the virtual disappearance of devaluation risk and attractive interest rate differentials.

Exchange Rate Policy

The Polish authorities’ initial choice of a fixed exchange rate was motivated by a desire to provide the economy with a nominal anchor and thus to calm worries about emerging hyperinflation caused by sizable monetary overhang and impending price liberalization. At the same time, the authorities were concerned about maintaining the competitiveness of the traded goods sector, especially in view of the large external imbalance. They fixed the exchange rate at a level that required devaluing the zloty by over 31 percent in U.S. dollar terms. A parallel market responsive to market forces was allowed to operate alongside the official market.

The authorities initially regarded the exchange rate peg as provisional, but it turned out to be more durable than expected because of fiscal and monetary tightening and firm wage restraint. The increase in official reserves and the availability of the $1 billion Stabilization Fund also helped to underpin the exchange rate for over 18 months.

The peg to the U.S. dollar was changed to a peg to a basket of currencies in May 1991 in recognition of Europe’s increasing role in Poland’s trade, and the zloty was devalued by over 14 percent against the basket. The authorities soon recognized that because inflation was higher at home than it was among Poland’s trading partners, a fixed exchange rate would severely erode the country’s competitive position and place intolerable pressures on the balance of payments. The exchange rate regime was therefore changed again in October 1991, this time to a preannounced crawling peg. Under this system, the monetary authorities fix a preannounced path for the exchange rate involving periodic and predictable fluctuations. This system is especially suited to a country that does not wish to abandon the discipline of a fixed exchange rate completely but needs to prevent the erosion of competitiveness in the face of a relatively high domestic inflation rate.

An important issue in implementing a crawling peg regime is determining the rate of the crawl, or the rate at which the exchange rate is changed periodically. Matching the rate of depreciation to the projected inflation differential during the period is tantamount to targeting the real exchange rate and is sometimes known as a “passive” crawl. An “active” crawl keeps the rate of depreciation lower than the inflation differential, effectively conceding some loss of competitiveness but still putting downward pressure on the domestic inflation rate. Poland adopted an active crawl in October 1991, setting the rate at 1.8 percent a month, significantly below the projected inflation differential. The corrections were to take place daily rather than monthly to avoid sharp movements in the exchange rate.

As expected, Poland’s inflation rate remained higher than the rates in the countries with which it traded, leading to an appreciation of the real exchange rate under the new regime. To maintain the country’s competitiveness, in late 1991, the authorities adopted a policy of occasional discrete devaluations. In February 1992, the zloty was devalued by 11 percent and in August 1993, by 7.5 percent. The monthly rate of crawl was also reduced in August 1993, from 1.8 percent to 1.6 percent and later to 1.4 percent. Large capital inflows and associated monetary expansion have raised the exchange rate above its projected level recently, forcing the authorities to move to a managed floating regime that permits the rate to float by ±7 percent on either side of the official rate (see Chart 4.2).

Chart 4.2.
Chart 4.2.

Poland: Exchange Rate Developments

Sources: IMF, Information Notice System; and IMF Institute database.1 As measured by the percent change in CPI.2 Unit labor cost series calculated by the IMF Institute.

In their efforts to reconcile the objectives of lowering inflation and maintaining competitiveness, the Polish authorities moved from a fixed rate pegged to the U.S. dollar to a rate pegged to a basket, then to a preannounced crawling peg, and finally to a managed float. Their exchange rate policy has broadly succeeded in remaining anti-inflationary while maintaining the external balance.

Exercises and Issues for Discussion


  1. On the basis of the data in Table 4.11 on international transactions, compile the balance of payments for Transitia in the format of Table 4.12 and according to the Fifth Edition of the Balance of Payments Methodology.

  2. How is the balance of payments of Transitia affected if (a) an estimated $2 billion in exports have not been reported and (b) if there is an estimated unreported capital outflow of $1 billion?

  3. Consider the effect of tariffs on the shoe industry in a country. Suppose that shoes sell for $10 in the world market (and domestically in the absence of any import restrictions) and that the material input—leather—costs $6 in the world market. Assuming for simplicity that no other costs are involved, compute the nominal and effective rates of protection if 20 percent tariff is levied on the import of shoes and no tariff is levied on leather. What would happen if a 10 percent tariff is now levied on leather? How about a 50 percent tariff on leather? As a producer of shoes, would you support the increase in tariff on leather? Would you, as a consumer of shoes? Would it make sense as a matter of policy for the government to increase the tariff on shoes to 50 percent?

  4. A Polish exporter of toys initially faces production costs of 1,000 zlotys and an exchange rate of 100 zlotys per U.S. dollar but is able to export at a profit. Assuming domestic cost inflation of 50 percent and zero foreign inflation, calculate the following:

    • (a) The effect of a pegged exchange rate on exports;

    • (d) The level of the exchange rate that would restore the real exchange rate; and

    • (c) Given an exchange rate depreciation of 25 percent, the change in the real exchange rate and the magnitude of the change in productivity the Polish exporter needs to restore the profitability of his exporting activity.

  5. Analyze the changing structure of Poland’s foreign trade on the basis of Tables 4.1 and 4.2 with a view toward assessing the sustainability of Poland’s recent export performance, focusing on:

    • (a) The extent of trade created rather than diverted in the shift from the old to the new markets;

    • (b) The impact of growth in partner countries and of foreign protectionism; and

    • (c) The competitiveness of exports.

  6. On the basis of Table 4.5, calculate the terms of trade for Poland during 1990–94 and comment on their evolution.

  7. On the basis of Table 4.5, calculate the effect of changes in the volumes of exports and imports and of prices, respectively, on the change in the trade balance in 1993.

  8. Using the information provided on Polish exchange rate development (Table 4.6), show graphically how the preannounced crawl can be represented. Confine your graph to the period after August 27, 1993. In particular, show how the graph changes with (i) an increase in the rate of crawl; and (ii) a widening in the margin permitted for fluctuation. Contrast this graph with that of (i) a fixed rate regime; and (ii) a fixed band.

  9. Based on the balance of payments table for Poland (Table 4.3), discuss the nature and sources of the imbalance in Poland’s external accounts and the way in which this imbalance affects the external debt position of Poland. Like many transition economies, Poland has significant unrecorded cross-border trade. How does the existence of such trade affect your analysis of the balance of payments? Discuss how the current account deficits in 1993 and 1994 were financed, and comment on the differences in financing patterns observed.

  10. With reference to Tables 4.9 and 4.10, analyze the external indebtedness of Poland. Construct several indicators of external indebtedness discussed in this chapter and comment on their evolution. Comment on the sustainability of Polish external indebtedness.

  11. Discuss the evolution of Poland’s competitiveness during 1991–94 on the basis of Chart 4.1, which shows the movements in Poland’s nominal and real exchange rates (based on consumer and producer prices and unit labor costs) and data given in Table 4.8.

Table 4.5.

External Trade1

(Percentage change)

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Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).

Data may not be consistent with the data provided in Tables 4.14.4.

Table 4.6.

Exchange Rate Developments

article image
Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).
Table 4.7.

Tariff Structure, as of July 1, 19951

(Percentage rates)

article image
Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).

Based on CN nomenclature excluding tariff-free quotas, including Free Trade Agreements.

including Free Trade Agreements.

Table 4.8.

Effective Exchange Rate

(Quarterly average indices January 1990 = 100)

article image
Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).

Based on data on unit labor costs in Poland and partner countries.

Nominal effective exchange rate index deflated by seasonally adjusted index of relative prices; a decrease indicates depreciation.

Table 4.9.

Scheduled Debt Service by Creditor

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

article image
Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).
Table 4.10.

External Reserves and Other Foreign Assets

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

article image
Source: Juha Kahkonen and others, Poland-Statistical Tables, IMF Staff Country Report No. 96/20 (Washington: International Monetary Fund, 1996).

Cold is valued at US$400 per ounce, includes prepaid letters of credit

Includes prepaid letters of credit

Table 4.11.

Transitia: Data on International Transactions Classified by Source1

(In millions of transitia dollars)

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Exercise taken from the training material of the IMF’s Statistics Department.

Table 4.12.

Transitia: Balance of Payments Statements1

(In millions of transitia dollars)

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Exercise taken from the training material of the IMF’s Statistics Department.

Issues for Discussion

  1. Although the balance of payments account is a useful framework for capturing an economy’s transactions with the rest of the world, it is desirable to supplement it with other information, such as data on external debt and arrears and foreign direct investment. Discuss why it is essential to use such supplementary information for Poland in order to obtain a full picture of the country’s external position. What specific supplementary information would you use?

  2. One of the differences between the Fourth and the Fifth Editions of the Manual lies in the treatment of valuation changes and new reserve assets created by the monetization of gold and the allocation of SDRs. What is the reasoning behind the exclusion of valuation changes from the balance of payments in the Fifth Edition? How does such a treatment affect the reconciliation of the balance of payments and the monetary accounts?

  3. It is sometimes said that a current account surplus is always desirable and a deficit undesirable. Do you agree with this statement? If not, why? Explain your answer with examples from various countries.

  4. In cases where a country is subject to internal or external shocks such as a drought or a fall in the price of its main export, the balance of payments outcome—such as a large current account deficit—may not represent the underlying trend. In such cases, how should the underlying current account deficit be estimated? Can you think of other factors affecting the balance of payments that would make it necessary to attempt to estimate the underlying current account?

  5. If a country is subject to a terms of trade shock (such as a rise in the price of a major import such as oil or a fall in the price of a major export such as coffee), how should the authorities formulate their policy response? Discuss the factors that need to be taken into account in determining the mix of adjustments and financing and the type of financing that should be used.

  6. In recent years, reflecting the increasing integration of world capital markets, the liberalization of controls on the capital account, and policy reforms, many developing and some transition economies are experiencing rising capital inflows. Are such inflows always an unmixed blessing? What difficulties do such inflows raise for the conduct of macroeconomic policy? In particular, should some type of capital inflows be preferred over others and if so, why?

  7. This workshop discusses the main issues analysts should consider in assessing reserve adequacy. In view of the liberalization of the capital account in many countries, are the conventional criteria for measuring reserve adequacy still relevant? Why do some countries seem to encounter no difficulties even while holding rather low levels of reserves in relation to their imports?

  8. Are the various external debt indicators presented in this chapter sufficient to assess a country’s debt situation? Why do countries such as Italy and Ireland, which have rather high debt ratios, seem not to suffer from a “debt problem,” while others countries with relatively low ratios have debt servicing difficulties?