The BBC has a story that says:

Economists generally agree that neither trade deficits nor surpluses are necessarily 'good' or 'bad' for an economy.

Is there some way to verify there's a level of consensus or at least majority opinion among economists that this is the case? E.g. is there some kind of survey of economists on this? Or is it a truth enshrined in most economics textbooks? These are just some suggestions for how to investigate this claim. I'm pretty open to other methods for establishing this putative general agreement among economists on the matter of trade deficit/surpluses not being inherently good or bad.

As a clarification as why focus on this statement and not on the Trumpian view that deficits are bad: it's because some economists apparently argue trade deficit is good, Milton Friedman supposedly had this view (I don't know how complete this quote is in reflecting that):

The idea that trade deficits might be acceptable harkens back to the early days of free-market capitalism and the Chicago School of Economics. Milton Friedman, the original disciple of the free-market school maintained that “a sustained trade deficit is the best possible outcome….we get physical goods like cars, flash memory, oil, computers, toys and all sorts of other goods for cheaply produced paper known as currency.”

I think I don't need to quote Trump (or his economic advisers) that deficits are bad (for the flip side). So what the BBC claims--namely that the mainstream view is that deficits are neither good nor bad--is a pretty strong claim given that some polarization of opinions (at the good/bad extremes) clearly exists on the matter. That's why I'm asking about whether this supposed mainstream view really is so "generally agreed".

And I also disagree that BBC's statement is wishy-washy; it's substantially different from just claiming (say) that "whether deficits are good or bad is controversial", which could entail that much more polarization exists on the matter and imply nothing about the existence of a quasi-consensus. If you want a numerical analogy, the controversial scenario could be 53% say "good", 47% say "bad", whereas the BBC statement is something like 20% say good, 20% say bad, 60% say neither good nor bad (and that's the quasi-consensus).

  • I don't know how you could make a "notable claim" any more wishy-washy than that one. You can research it, but, absent a stupid error (which is not obvious) there's nothing to "prove", one way or the other. Jul 30, 2018 at 23:47
  • it might be better to pick a position–for example the Trump idea that trade deficits are a sign that America is being exploited by foreigners–and ask whether it is supported by any economic analysis. Might get you the same answer but based on a stronger version of the claim.
    – matt_black
    Jul 30, 2018 at 23:54
  • @matt_black: I don't see those as equivalent. Some economists argue that trade deficits are good e.g. Friedman apparently industryweek.com/trade/do-trade-deficits-matter. So the consensus being that by itself trade deficit/surplus is neither is a stronger statement than Trump being wrong that deficit is bad.. Jul 31, 2018 at 0:04
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    @rjzii: How so? The BBC statement is about economists not economies... Jul 31, 2018 at 1:29
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    I think this question is fine as-is. A question actually about "are trade deficits good or bad?" would better fit an economics site, but this question is instead about consensus among economists, and it is motivated by a BBC claim which itself has no indicated source. Jul 31, 2018 at 13:53

1 Answer 1


Not exactly the same but IGM, an expert panel for measuring economists' views on various issues, asked its participants to rate "A typical country can increase its citizens’ welfare by enacting policies that would increase its trade surplus (or decrease its trade deficit)" and they were heavily against.

  • Well that answers half the question. We'd need something similar for the opposite question, e.g. if a panel strongly disagreed that "A typical country can increase its citizens’ welfare by enacting policies that would decrease its trade surplus" that would put most experts in the "no strong good/bad effect" middle bin. Jul 31, 2018 at 15:36
  • While interesting, that doesn't actually answer the inherit question. To borrow my comment from above, you aren't going to improve everyone's lives with $1 trade surplus and total trade per year. It's actually not that good of a question since there aren't enough parameters around the question.
    – rjzii
    Jul 31, 2018 at 16:17
  • @rjzii: I don't know if that was really worth downvoting though. One of the comments in that article is "Only two economists agreed with the trade balance statement and only one of them left a comment, which echoed the undecided voters. “Depends on circumstances,” said Bengt Holmström. “For small open economies and emerging economies, trade balance is an essential element of policy,” he said." Although it was only one guy who said this. The quote is from blog version/take of that survey review.chicagobooth.edu/blog/2014/december/… Jul 31, 2018 at 17:17
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    @Fizz As a discrete measure the question isn't that good - like you said, too many of the comments indicate that it depends. However, as a collection of economist's thoughts it might be useful to answer your question. The OP would need to do some editing though to summarize the comments.
    – rjzii
    Jul 31, 2018 at 18:25
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    @Tgr I'm glad to hear you are an expert in survey methodology, no offense intended. However, as a peer reviewer, your answer needs to include some additional contextualization such as the breakdown of responses given and the confidence that the experts assigned. Additionally, since comments were also solicited from the informants, a sample of those should also be provided for the reader.
    – rjzii
    Jul 31, 2018 at 18:36

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