A 2017 PIIE analysis found that fiscal balances and foreign exchange intervention—more broadly, government purchases of foreign assets to influence exchange rates—are the most important factors behind differences in current account balances across countries and over time. The current account is the broadest measure of a country's balance of trade. It records all income received from foreigners and payments made to foreigners. It is dominated by trade in goods and services but also includes income receipts on domestically owned factors of production (capital and labor) that are employed abroad and payments to foreign-owned factors of production at home. A country’s fiscal surplus and official purchases of foreign assets tend to increase its current account balance. Net official purchases by other countries tend to reduce current account balances in the home country, especially when it issues a reserve currency. This paper updates the earlier analysis with three more years (2016–18) and roughly 40 percent more observations. New analysis of net international investment positions (which largely reflect cumulated current account balances) finds even stronger evidence for the dominant role of official reserve positions in explaining differences in current account balances across countries. An increase in a country’s official reserve position causes essentially a dollar-for-dollar increase in its net international investment position.
The data underlying this analysis are available here [zip].