36. International trade statistics (ITS) measure quantities and values of goods that, by moving into or out of a country, add to or subtract from a nation’s material stock of goods. ITS are compiled from forms or from electronic transmissions sent by importers and exporters (or their agents) to customs or to the ITS compiler. BOP compilers in most countries rely on ITS to compile the goods item in the BOP and, in some countries, ITS are used in compiling other items in BOP accounts.


36. International trade statistics (ITS) measure quantities and values of goods that, by moving into or out of a country, add to or subtract from a nation’s material stock of goods. ITS are compiled from forms or from electronic transmissions sent by importers and exporters (or their agents) to customs or to the ITS compiler. BOP compilers in most countries rely on ITS to compile the goods item in the BOP and, in some countries, ITS are used in compiling other items in BOP accounts.

International Guidelines on ITS

Relevance of Guidelines to BOP Compilation

37. International guidelines on concepts and definitions used in the compilation of ITS may be found in “International Trade Statistics: Concepts and Definitions” of the United Nations Statistical Papers.8

38. The BOP compiler should be aware of the guidelines and the extent to which they are, or are not, implemented by customs and national statistical authorities in the compiler’s country. The guidelines do not fully conform to the principles of the SNA and the BPM. For example, customs records essentially reflect the physical movement of goods across borders, whereas the SNA and the BPM require the BOP compiler to measure goods on a change of ownership basis. Subsequent sections of this chapter elaborate on conceptual differences between the guidelines and the BPM.

Coverage of ITS

39. The guidelines essentially state that ITS should cover all “merchandise” entering and leaving a country. However, the guidelines also indicate that too rigid an application of this rule would lead to inclusion of goods that it would be desirable to exclude. (On this point, the guidelines are more in harmony with requirements of the BPM and the SNA.) Treatment of questionable cases is discussed in the guidelines, and these treatments—along with corresponding BOP treatments—are shown in table 2.1 on pages 7-8. In addition, the guidelines present the concept of a frontier or statistical boundary that defines the borders of a country for customs purposes. The frontier concept is clarified in the section on special and general trade systems in this chapter, and national frontiers or statistical boundaries are listed in “Customs Areas of the World” of the United Nations Statistical Papers.9

Table 2.1.

Treatment of Questionable Cases in ITS and the BOP

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The BPM also Includes, in goods, goods imported from third countries by a country’s armed forces and diplomatic representatives abroad.

In each case, it is recognized that customs may not collect the relevant data. The ITS compiler should use other sources for the collection of information. Because of collection difficulties, bunkers, stores, etc. acquired abroad are excluded from ITS. Fish and salvage sold abroad or to foreign vessels by national vessels are excluded from ITS for practical reasons. Finally, the guidelines note in respect of (e) that mining by vessels belonging to the country acquiring the goods should not be regarded as imports—a ruling that conforms with treatments in the SNA and BPM.

However, goods subject to operational leases are regarded as changing ownership if they are leased to a branch by its foreign head office.

Special Trade and General Trade

40. The guidelines outline the measurement of trade flows on the basis of (1) the special trade system and (2) the general trade system. For imports, the first measure is based on the concept of clearance (of goods) through customs for home use; whereas the second measure is based on the concept of goods entering and leaving the national territory. Special trade exports consist of exports of goods of national origin and of exports of imported goods that have previously crossed the customs frontier (that is, goods in free circulation within the country). General trade exports comprise all goods moving out of the national territory.

41. Under the special trade system, the customs frontier is regarded as the statistical boundary whereas, under the general trade system, the national frontier is regarded as the statistical boundary. According to a strict definition of special trade, a particular difficulty arises in recording goods that are imported into a customs free zone for processing and then exported. For example, crude petroleum may be imported into a customs free zone, refined, and subsequently exported. According to a strict definition of special trade, these goods will not be recorded if they are not cleared by customs. However, since such goods contribute to the value of an economy’s production, they are included as imports and exports in the special trade system.

42. The reader should refer to illustrations 2.1 and 2.2 on page 10 for treatments of trade flows. The first illustration shows four groups of import flows. In the first group (A), goods enter directly, via customs, into the domestic territory. In the second group (B), goods enter into customs warehouses and free trade areas where most will be cleared, at a later time, into the domestic territory. In the third group (C), goods enter into a manufacturing free trade zone. The fourth group of flows (D) relates to direct transit trade. General trade imports, which measure goods entering the domestic territory, equal A1 + B1 + C1. Special trade imports, which measure goods cleared into the domestic territory plus goods entering customs manufacturing zones, equal A1 +B2 + C1. Therefore, it is the B element that causes the differences between the two types of measurement. Goods in transit are excluded from both general and special trade.

Illustration 2.1
Illustration 2.1

Import Flows

Note: B1 does not necessarily equal B2 in any period because goods, after entering the economy (B1), may spend some time in the customs store before being cleared into the domestic economy (B2) or be exported directly from the customs store (B3). Similarly, C1 does not necessarily equal C2 because it may be some time before goods entering the domestic economy (C1) are transformed and leave the economy (C2).
Illustration 2.2
Illustration 2.2

Import and Export Flows

Note: E1 represents exports of goods produced in the domestic territory and E2 represents exports of goods originally imported into the domestic territory; that is, some part of A1 and B2 are re-exported.

43. Illustration 2.2, which shows imports and exports, is the same as illustration 2.1 with two new lines (E1 and E2) added. Exports may include goods that are produced in the domestic territory and then exported (E1); goods that enter the domestic territory, circulate freely, and then are re-exported (E2); goods that are exported from customs warehouses and free trade zones (B3); and goods that are exported from customs-controlled manufacturing plants (C2). Under the general trade system, flows that would be included as exports are E1 + E2 + B3 + C2. In the general trade system, a distinction is made between national exports and re-exports. In illustration 2.2, national exports are flows E1 and C2; re-exports are flows E2 and B3. Goods exported from customs warehouses and free trade zones (B3) would be excluded from the special trade system, which would comprise E1 + E2 + C2.

44. The 1982 ITS guidelines state that the ITS compiler may use either the special or general trade system to record ITS but encourage the use of both systems—at least at less frequent intervals. The 1970 edition of the guidelines recommended the special trade system for compilation of ITS.

45. The BPM stresses that measurements for BOP compilation should be based on change of ownership rather than on the general trade system (goods entering or leaving an economy) or the special trade system (goods cleared by customs). The general trade system appears to be a better proxy for measuring change of ownership because it provides broader coverage and the date of change of ownership may be closer to the date goods cross the national frontier (shipment date) than to the date goods clear through customs. Some countries that use the special trade system make coverage adjustments in the BOP for goods that cross the border and are not included in ITS. BOP compilers should attempt to ascertain the impact on the BOP of the time of measurement used in ITS. In some countries where it is known that the clearance or shipment date for certain significant goods does not coincide with change of ownership, the BOP compiler selectively substitutes data from other sources.

Commodity Classification

46. The guidelines describe the Standard International Trade Classification (SITC), the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS), and their relationships to other classifications such as Broad Economic Category (BEC). An understanding of these classifications is important for BOP compilation, publication, analysis, and projection. Since the guidelines were published in 1982, much work has been done on developing commodity classifications at an international level, and the reader is referred to other papers in the United Nations Statistical Papers series.10 The primary groupings in the SITC and BEC classifications are shown in chapter 11, paragraph 471 of this Guide.


47. The guidelines provide an explanation of the difference between the transactions value, which is the price actually paid by the importer, and the value declared for customs purposes, which is typically the value recorded in ITS. The guidelines also trace the development of customs valuations. Most countries have adopted, for purposes of valuing imports, the recommendations in the Agreement on Implementation of Article VII of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This agreement essentially accepts the importer transaction values. However, customs officials can, under certain conditions, adjust such values if they think importer valuation is based on avoidance (for example, by false invoicing or use of artificial transfer prices) of some part of the import duty. The recommendations in the agreement also define the valuation to be adopted for imports for which no accompanying movements of cash or credit take place. From examination of available evidence, it appears that, in practice, the customs valuation for total recorded imports exceeds, under Article VII of GATT, the transactions valuation by a small margin. The customs value may be considered a reasonable proxy for the market value. Some countries may still rely on a definition of value that is based upon a concept of “normal price.” In these countries, the margin between customs and transactions values is likely to be greater.

48. Another valuation issue concerns the point of valuation, namely, whether goods are valued at the importer’s border—that is, at the cost, insurance, and freight (c.i.f.) value at the importer’s border—or at the free on board (f.o.b.) value at the exporter’s border. The guidelines recommend the adoption of the c.i.f. valuation for imports whereas, for BOP compilation purposes, the f.o.b. valuation is required. In view of this requirement, the guidelines recommend that supplementary data be collected for imports valued on an f.o.b. basis. Sampling import entries is suggested as a possible means by which this data could be gathered. The guidelines recommend that exports be recorded on a f.o.b. basis, a practice that is consistent with BOP requirements.

49. Neither the f.o.b. nor the c.i.f. basis may represent the contract price, which depends upon delivery arrangements made by the importer and the exporter. Therefore, many bases of valuation are possible in practice, and the f.o.b./c.i.f. bases may require some degree of estimation by importers and exporters. Some countries do not adhere strictly to the f.o.b. or the c.i.f. basis. (For example, the United States uses a free along side ship (f.a.s.) basis that is considered to be close to the f.o.b. basis.) In the ITS procedures adopted by the European Union for the measurement of intra-union trade flows, information is collected on the basis of contract price, and adjustments are made to place the statistics on the valuation basis required by international standards.

50. An additional valuation issue concerns currency conversion. The guidelines state:

For practical reasons, Article 9 of the GATT Agreement provides that, when the conversion of currency is necessary for the determination of the customs value, the rate of exchange used should be that published by the competent authorities of the importing countries. It must reflect, as effectively as possible in respect to the period covered, the current value of such currency in commercial transactions in terms of the currency of the country of importation. Article 9 further provides that the conversion rate to be used is that in effect at the time of exportation or importation, as provided by each contracting party.11

51. How do these valuation principles compare with BOP compilation requirements? For BOP purposes, the point of valuation required for both exports and imports is f.o.b. When a c.i.f. or other valuation is provided, the BOP compiler should estimate the freight and insurance components separately to arrive at a f.o.b. valuation. The BOP compiler essentially requires a market price for valuing trade. The transactions price is usually a good proxy for market price; in exceptional cases of transfer pricing, other values could be substituted. When the GATT basis of valuation is used, customs value may be considered a reasonable proxy for transactions value, although the BOP compiler may have to investigate the actual situation to determine whether a valuation adjustment should and can be made. An assessment of the exchange rates prescribed by customs law or regulation and their conformity to BOP recording principles should be made by the BOP compiler. This assessment should be accompanied by an investigation of actual practice. Adjustments should be made if inappropriate conversion of import and export values from foreign currencies to the unit of account causes significant errors in BOP accounts.

Quantity Measurement

52. The guidelines explain various quantity measures required for ITS. While the BOP compiler essentially compiles data in current values, quantity measures should be of interest and should be included in any analysis accompanying BOP statistics. Some quantity measures of goods will also be essential for the BOP compiler charged with making projections of BOP goods series.

Partner Country Classification

53. Trade in goods classified by partner country provides the basis for compilation of a regional BOP statement in respect of goods. The guidelines present various concepts that could be used to determine partner country classification and provide a useful discussion of each. For a more extensive discussion of this issue, refer to chapter 17 of this Guide.

Compilation of ITS

54. Source documents for ITS are, in most countries, customs declaration forms (or electronic transmissions sent by traders or their agents to customs officials in lieu of customs declaration forms). These forms are designed to reflect the various trade flows identified in illustration 2.2. In a general trade system, forms identify trade flows A1, B1, and C1 for imports and flows E1, E2, B3, and C2 for exports. Forms for a special trade system substitute B2 for B1 for imports and drop B3 from exports. Goods in transit (D1) are likely to be omitted from both systems. Some ITS systems measure both general and special trade. In these systems, all trade flows (except goods in transit) shown in illustration 2.2 are measured.

55. Individuals arriving in, and sometimes departing from, a country are generally required to complete declaration forms. Data (on the value of goods declared) from such documents may be used to estimate travelers’ or migrants’ goods in the BOP.12 There is usually a form for goods sent by parcel post, and the declared value of such goods should, in principle, be recorded in ITS.

56. Under the procedures developed for measuring ITS in the European Union, enterprises report directly to the ITS compiler, rather than customs, in respect of intra-union trade.

57. Widely ranging data are collected on ITS forms. Of most interest to the BOP compiler are the value of goods, the commodity classification, the quantity, the shipment date (the date the goods arrive in port for imports or leave port for exports), the mode of transport and residency of transport operator, the currency of the transaction, and the method of payment.

58. Customs procedures may have an impact on the recording, and hence on the quality, of ITS. The BOP compiler should be familiar with the actual practices adopted in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses of ITS. Of particular concern are: (1) lags between the dates of shipment or clearance and the processing of documents (Such lags may cause timing problems when ITS are used in BOP compilation.); (2) the valuation of certain exports for which final prices may not be known at the times of export (a particular problem with agricultural and mining products); and (3) less attention being paid by customs officials to duty-free goods. (Often, duty-free goods—especially exports and government and defence imports—receive less attention and may not have documents created for them.) Finally, there may be problems with nonrecording of smuggled goods.

59. Finalized customs documents are usually sent to the national statistical office where staff process the documents and compile the ITS. In many countries, the timeliness of ITS is very good; both broad aggregate and detailed statistics become available within a month after the reference period. Some factors leading to ITS of good quality are:

  • (1) ITS compilers who are well versed in international statistical guidelines and who follow them closely by encouraging customs officials to collect relevant data or by making supplementary inquiries of importers and exporters;

  • (2) ITS compilers who maintain close contact with users, such as BOP and national accounts compilers, to resolve difficult conceptual and treatment issues and to harmonize whatever treatments are adopted;

  • (3) ITS compilers who undertake independent coverage checks and introduce appropriate coverage procedures;

  • (4) ITS compilers who undertake a number of validation checks, such as price to quantity (unit value) checks on data, and query cases that lie outside the norm;

  • (5) sufficient, well-trained processing staff.

Uses of ITS in International Accounts

60. ITS serve many purposes. In most countries, ITS provide basic data for compilation of the goods item in the BOP. ITS may be used, either directly or indirectly, in the compilation of transportation services; services associated with technology transfer, entertainment, and the renting of equipment; migrants’ transfers; and goods provided under foreign aid programs. ITS may also provide listings of enterprises that are engaged in goods transactions and/or important recipients of international finance, providers of trade credit, and acquirers or providers of other services. An ITS system could therefore be used in creating a population listing for a BOP enterprise register, a subject that is discussed in chapter 18.

61. International guidelines for ITS are not fully implemented in all countries. Also, the guidelines do not provide definitive directions in all cases, and ITS compilers must make some choices. Nor are the guidelines fully consistent with BOP accounting principles specified by the BPM. Therefore, working with the ITS compiler, the BOP compiler should first review national ITS to identify differences between ITS and BOP requirements. Then, an attempt should be made to quantify such differences. If possible, the BOP and ITS compiler should arrange for adoption of suitable procedures to correct significant differences. Corrective activities may include encouraging customs authorities to modify procedures, collection (by the ITS compiler) of additional data directly from enterprises, or provision of additional disaggregations via the ITS. Sometimes it may be more appropriate for special adjustments to be included in the BOP compilation process because, from a BOP viewpoint, some inadequacies of ITS may arise merely from the different conceptual basis of ITS and BOP statistics. Particular adjustments that may be made by the BOP compiler are discussed in chapter 11, paragraphs 461-466.

62. ITS also provide input to the rest of the world account of the national accounts. (Ideally, the link should be through the BOP compilation system.) ITS can be used directly and indirectly to compile goods statistics in current and constant price terms that are seasonally adjusted or unadjusted and accompanied with relevant implicit price deflators. For many analyses, goods should be classified according to various broad commodity groups. At a more detailed level, ITS are an important input into the compilation of input/output tables.