Trends in Australia's Balance of Payments

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Australia's trading patterns have evolved considerably over the past century. Structural changes in Australia's economy and those of our trading partners have resulted in significant changes in the pattern of exports, imports and flows of income. At the same time, developments in financial markets and the investment needs of different sectors of the Australian economy have driven changes in the flow of capital.

This Explainer summarises the longer-term trends within the two sides of Australia's balance of payments: the current account and the combined capital and financial account. (For a discussion about the economic concepts and framework of the balance of payments, see Explainer: The Balance of Payments.)

Trends in Australia's Current Account Balance

The current account balance reflects the difference between national savings and investment, and is measured as the sum of the ‘trade balance’, ‘primary income balance’ and ‘secondary income balance’. For simplicity, the primary income balance and secondary income balance are often combined and referred to as the ‘income balance’. The current account balance can be in surplus (have a positive value), be equal to zero, or be in deficit (have a negative value).

Australia has generally had a current account deficit, reflecting attractive investment opportunities in the economy that exceed our capacity to fund via domestic saving. Changes in the size of the current account deficit have been largely driven by developments in the trade balance, which tends to be volatile from quarter to quarter, while the income balance has been more stable over time.

In the June quarter 2019, the current account was in surplus for the first time since 1975.

Graph 1: Australia's Current Account Balance

Trends in Australia's Trade Balance

Australia has had a trade deficit with the rest of the world, on average, since at least the 1960s, with the value of the goods and services imported exceeding the value of the goods and services exported. Changes in Australia's trade balance have been influenced by the types of the goods and services Australia exports and imports, as well as the prices that are received or paid for these goods and services. Australia has a comparative advantage in the export of resource and agricultural commodities. Together these commodities account for a relatively large share of our exports and have more volatile prices than those of the goods and services Australia imports.

As a result, the nation's trade balance tends to fluctuate alongside changes in these commodity prices. (For a discussion of commodity prices, see Explainer: Australia and the Global Economy – The Terms of Trade Boom.)

Graph 2: Australia's Trade in Goods and Services

This section explores in more detail how changes in the structure of the Australian and global economies have influenced what Australia trades in and with which countries Australia trades.


An open economy like Australia can choose to export goods and services to the rest of the world for a range of reasons. One possibility is that domestic production is higher than domestic consumption, creating an excess of supply; another is that an overseas buyer may be willing to pay a higher price for the goods or services than a domestic consumer, for instance because it is not available in their home economy.

The composition of Australia's exports

Over the past century, Australia's exports to the rest of the world have been dominated by either agricultural or resource commodities, reflecting Australia's natural advantage in producing these goods. Up until the mid 1960s, wool was Australia's largest export, accounting for around 40 per cent on average of Australia's total export values. As the agricultural sector gradually became a smaller part of the Australian economy, its share of exports also declined, accounting for between 10 and 15 per cent of total export values in recent years. Meat and wheat exports are currently Australia's predominant agricultural exports, while wool accounts for a much smaller share than it has historically.

Australia has also had a long history of exporting many different natural resources to the rest of the world, consistent with Australia's large natural resource endowment and relatively low domestic usage of these goods. In the early 1900s, gold was Australia's top resource export, accounting for around 10 per cent of total export values. However, exports of iron ore, coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) became increasingly important, particularly after the mining investment boom in the 2000s when Australia's capacity to extract these resource was increased substantially. Together, iron ore, coal and LNG now account for more than two-thirds of the value of Australia's resource exports.

Graph 3: Composition of Exports

Australia's major export trading partners

From the early 1900s through to the 1950s, Australia mainly exported agricultural products (wool, wheat and dairy) and gold to the United Kingdom and other European economies, reflecting Australia's close political ties with these economies. After the Second World War, exports of resources, manufactured goods and services started to grow in importance but the direction of Australia's trade started to change.

In the late 1960s, Australia's export trade became increasingly oriented towards those Asian economies experiencing rapid growth (including Japan, South Korea and later China).

The ongoing industrialisation and urbanisation of these economies increased their demand for Australia's natural resources, such as coal and iron ore, which are used in construction, manufacturing and power generation. During the 1980s, as average household incomes in neighbouring economies rose, demand for Australian services also started to rise in importance, particularly for education and travel services. More recently, China has overtaken Japan to become Australia's largest trading partner, owing to its strong demand for natural resources. Resource exports currently account for more than half of Australia's total export values.

Australia's Major Trading Partners – Exports
Average annual share of Australia's exports by decade, per cent
1900s 48 19 1 1 0 7 5 19
1910s 49 17 3 0 0 7 7 17
1920s 41 23 7 0 0 7 7 14
1930s 52 16 8 2 0 4 6 12
1940s 34 7 1 1 0 9 19 29
1950s 33 21 9 0 0 7 8 21
1960s 18 15 18 4 0 9 11 25
1970s 7 10 29 2 1 11 11 28
1980s 4 9 27 3 4 19 11 22
1990s 4 7 23 4 7 30 8 17
2000s 6 7 17 9 7 28 8 18
2010s 3 4 14 27 7 24 5 15

Sources: ABS; DFAT; RBA

Although the relative importance of non-Asian economies as direct export trading partners has declined over time, they remain an important indirect source of demand for Australia's exports. This is because many of the goods that Australia directly exports to Asian economies are part of global supply chains, where products are assembled in Asia and the finished products are then sold to buyers, many of whom are in advanced economies.

For example, consider an Australian mining company that exports $100 million of iron ore to a steelmaker in China who produces steel for a range of manufactured products. A manufacturer in China uses this steel to produce ‘white goods’ like washing machines and refrigerators that are purchased by consumers in the United States for $120 million. Although Australia did not directly export these products to the United States, demand for Australia's resources was indirectly boosted by American consumers through their trading relationship with China.

Australia exports $100m of resources to China. Manufacturers in China use the steel produced from the resources to make white goods.
										 Consumers in the United States purchase $120m of white goods from China (also known as an import)


Goods and services can be imported into an open economy like Australia because they are not available domestically (for example, a highly specialised piece of mining equipment or a family holiday to see the Eiffel tower in Paris), or because they are cheaper to purchase than equivalent domestic goods and services.

The composition of Australia's imports

Australia imports a wide variety of goods and services from the rest of the world. In contrast to the composition of Australia's exports, Australia's imports are not clearly dominated by one or two categories. In addition, the composition of imports has been comparatively more stable over time. Nevertheless, there have still been some changes in the composition of imports that have occurred alongside longer-run changes in the types of goods and services that are produced within the Australian economy.

Graph: Composition of Imports

For instance, the share of imports accounted for by industrial supplies – such as specialised parts for machinery & equipment, chemicals and plastics – has declined as manufacturing has become a smaller share of the Australian economy. The decline in Australian manufacturing has meant that fewer goods are assembled in Australia and, as a result, demand for inputs from overseas has declined. A related consequence has been that imports of fully assembled goods, which are ready to be used, have increased; these types of finished goods are commonly referred to as ‘final’ goods. These have included consumer goods – such as clothing and footwear, toys and household electrical items (like televisions and radios) – as well as capital goods. Capital goods are typically used for investment purposes and include items like specialised machinery, telecommunications equipment and computer hardware.

Services have consistently been one of the largest components of Australia's imports, accounting for around one-quarter of total import values, on average, over the past few decades. Service imports mostly reflect the travel expenditure of Australian residents while they are overseas for education, holiday and business-related reasons.

Australia's Major Trading Partners – Imports
Average annual share of Australia's exports by decade, per cent
1900s 60 10 1 0 0 6 13 11
1910s 53 7 3 0 0 8 16 13
1920s 45 6 3 1 0 9 23 13
1930s 40 8 5 1 0 11 16 19
1940s 37 2 1 0 0 11 27 22
1950s 44 10 2 0 0 9 12 21
1960s 27 13 8 1 0 7 22 22
1970s 17 15 21 1 0 11 26 9
1980s 9 17 22 2 1 15 28 7
1990s 7 15 18 5 3 21 24 7
2000s 5 17 13 12 4 26 18 5
2010s 4 15 8 19 4 30 14 5

Sources: ABS; DFAT; RBA

Lastly, one component of imports that has experienced a number of large changes in its share has been fuels & lubricants. Imports of fuels & lubricants include the petrol, diesel and jet fuel used by cars, trains and planes and, as a result, its value is closely associated with developments in global oil prices. For example, the share increased noticeably throughout the 2000s, alongside increases in global oil prices, before declining over 2015 and 2016 as global oil prices declined sharply.

Australia's major import trading partners

In the early 1900s, Australia mostly imported goods from the United Kingdom and other European economies. However, the United States was also an important source of imports, especially around the time of the Second World War. Australian imports from the Asian region started to increase during the 1970s and the share from many advanced economies declined. Since the 1990s, at least half of Australia's imports have been sourced from economies in Asia.

Trends in Australia's Income Balance

Australia's combined primary and secondary income balance has also been in deficit for many decades – that is, Australian residents have paid more income to non-residents than they have received from non-residents.

The ‘financial investments’ component of the primary income balance has historically driven the majority of the net income deficit. This has reflected the fact that the stock of Australian liabilities held by foreign investors exceeds the stock of foreign assets held by Australian residents. As a result, Australians must pay more interest to the rest of world on these liabilities than it receives on its assets from abroad. In recent years, Australia's mining sector has been a large component of Australia's net income outflows, as this sector has a high degree of foreign ownership. This results in part of the income earned by these companies in Australia being paid to foreign owners in the form of dividends.

Graph: Australia's Net Income Balance

Trends in Australia's Capital and Financial Account

The combined capital and financial account records the capital and financial transactions between Australia and the rest of the world. The Australian economy has generally been a net recipient of capital inflows from the rest of the world for more than a century. In other words, the savings of the domestic economy have been supplemented with savings from abroad in order to fund the relatively high level of investment in the economy.

Graph: Australia's Capital and Financial Account Balance

Net capital inflows have allowed Australia a greater ability to invest and expand its domestic productive capacity. This is reflected in a capital and financial account surplus – the counterpart to Australia's current account deficit.

Trends in Australia's Capital Flows

Prior to the 1980s, foreign investment in Australia generally took the form of foreign direct investment. Australia's financial sector underwent a period of deregulation in the early 1980s, which included the removal of capital controls and the floating of the Australian dollar in 1983 (see Explainer: Exchange Rates and their Measurement). As a result of these reforms, Australian residents could use their savings to invest overseas more freely than before and overseas investors were able to invest in a broader range of Australian assets. Reflecting this, capital flows to and from Australia increased substantially and became more varied in their type. In particular, investment in portfolio assets increased dramatically. Since 2011, however, foreign direct investment has again represented a large share of net capital inflows.

Graph: Australian Capital Flows by Type

Capital flows by sector

Prior to 2007, around two-thirds of foreign capital flows into Australia was directed to the financial sector as Australian banks funded a larger share of their lending by borrowing in overseas markets. Over the past decade, net capital flows to the Australian banking sector have declined to be around zero as banks have funded more of their operations using domestic deposits. Meanwhile, foreign investment played an important role in expanding the capacity of Australia's resources sector in order to meet growing global demand for Australian commodities. Capital inflows into the mining sector, Australian government debt and the private non-financial sector have been partially offset by outflows from the ‘other’ financial sector. This largely reflects flows from Australian superannuation funds, which have accumulated a large stock of foreign assets, particularly foreign equities.

Capital inflows by geography

Geographically, advanced economies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan have accounted for the majority of foreign investment in Australia over the past decade or so. The value of capital flows from China to Australia has also grown in recent years, with foreign direct investment from China becoming an increasingly important source of investment in Australia, through overall flows from China remain small.

Graph: Australian Capital Flows by Sector

Trends in Australia's External Position

As a result of net capital inflows from abroad, Australia has accumulated a net liability (borrowing) position with the rest of the world. However, the composition of these net foreign liabilities can shift over time. In recent years, net long-term debt liabilities have risen as foreign investors have increased their holdings of Australian government debt. Meanwhile, net short-term debt liabilities have fallen. Australia's net foreign equity liabilities have also declined markedly in recent years. Since 2013, Australia has had a net foreign equity asset position – Australian residents own more equity in foreign companies than non-residents own in Australian companies.

Foreign Investment in Australia by Country
Average annual share of foreign investment in Australia by decade, per cent
2000s 24 8 4 0 0 6 26 31
2010s 18 15 7 2 1 7 27 24

Sources: ABS; DFAT; RBA

Graph: Australia's Net Foreign Liabilities

Foreign currency composition

Most of Australia's liabilities with the rest of the world are denominated in Australian dollars, rather than foreign currencies. This includes foreign investment in the equity of Australian companies and in Australian government debt. In addition, many Australian firms that borrow funds in international markets convert their foreign currency borrowings into Australian dollars using financial instruments known as derivatives. This practice is known as ‘hedging’ and ensures that a depreciation in the Australian dollar does not make it more expensive for firms to repay their foreign debts. In contrast, over half of Australia's foreign assets are denominated in foreign currencies.

This results in Australia having a net foreign currency asset position: Australian residents own more assets denominated in foreign currencies than we owe liabilities denominated in foreign currencies to non-residents. The currency composition of Australia's foreign assets and liabilities determines how the external position is affected by movements in the exchange rate. Because Australia has a net foreign currency asset position, when the Australian dollar depreciates, the value of foreign currency-denominated assets increases in Australian dollar terms, and so our gross foreign assets increase relative to our gross foreign liabilities. In addition, the income received on our foreign assets increases relative to the income paid on our foreign liabilities. This means that, overall, a depreciation of the currency would tend to strengthen Australia's external position and result in a narrowing of the net income deficit. These features enable the exchange rate to be a more effective shock absorber for the Australian economy (see Explainer: Exchange Rates and the Australian Economy).

Graph: Australia's External Position