Balance of payments accounts keep track of a country’s payments to and receipts from foreigners. Any transaction resulting in a receipt from foreigners is entered in the balance of payments accounts as a credit. Any transaction resulting in a payment to foreigners is entered as a debit.
Three types of international transaction are recorded in the balance of payments:
1. Transactions that arise from the export or import of goods or services and therefore enter directly into the current account.
For example, when a French consumer imports American blue jeans, for example, the transaction enters the U.S. balance of payments accounts as a credit on the current account.
2. Transactions that arise from the purchase or sale of financial assets. An asset is any one of the forms in which wealth can be held, such as money, stocks, factories, or government debt. The financial account of the balance of payments records all international purchases or sales of financial assets.
For example, when an American company buys a French factory, the transaction enters the U.S. balance of payments as a debit in the financial account. It enters as a debit because the transaction requires a payment from the United States to foreigners. Correspondingly, a U.S. sale of assets to foreigners enters the U.S. financial account as a credit. The difference between a country’s purchases and sales of foreign assets is called its financial account balance, or its net financial flows.
3. Certain other activities resulting in transfers of wealth between countries are recorded in the capital account. These international asset movements—which are generally very small for the United States—differ from those recorded in the financial account. For the most part they result from nonmarket activities or represent the acquisition or disposal of nonproduced, nonfinancial, and possibly intangible assets (such as copyrights and trademarks).
For example, if the U.S. government forgives $1 billion in debt owed to it by the government of Pakistan, U.S. wealth declines by $1 billion and a $1 billion debit is recorded in the U.S. capital account.
You will find the complexities of the balance of payments accounts less confusing if you keep in mind the following simple rule of double-entry bookkeeping: Every international transaction automatically enters the balance of payments twice, once as a credit and once as a debit. This principle of balance of payments accounting holds true because every transaction has two sides: If you buy something from a foreigner, you must pay him in some way, and the foreigner must then somehow spend or store your payment.