The dynamics of the U.S. trade balance and real exchange rate: the J curve and trade costs?

George Alessandria, Horag Choi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


We study how changes in trade barriers contributed to the dynamics of the US trade balance and real exchange rate between 1980 and 2015 - a period when trade tripled. Using two dynamic trade models, we decompose fluctuations in the trade balance into terms related to trade integration (global and unilateral) and business cycle asymmetries. We find three main results. First, the relatively large US trade deficits as a share of GDP in the 2000s compared to the 1980s mostly reflect a rise in the trade share of GDP. Second, controlling for trade, only about 60% of net trade flows are due to business cycle asymmetries. And third, about two-thirds of the contribution of business-cycle asymmetries are a lagged response. For instance, the short-run Armington elasticity is about 0.2 while the long-run is closer to 1.12 with only 6.9% of the gap closed per quarter. We show that a two-country IRBC model with a dynamic exporting decision, pricing-to-market, and trade cost shocks can account for the dynamics of the US trade balance, real exchange rate, and trade integration. The model clarifies how permanent and transitory changes in trade barriers affect the trade balance and how to identify changes in trade barriers. It shows that uneven trade policy shocks substantially bias Armington elasticity estimates downward. We also show the effect of temporary trade policies on the trade balance depends on whether they induce a trade war.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103511
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of International Economics
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021


  • International business cycles
  • Real exchange rate
  • Trade balance
  • Trade integration

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