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What is Terms of Trade?

N.M. Shanley
N.M. Shanley

Terms of trade (TOT) relates to international trade. It is a single number that represents the ratio of a particular country's exports and imports. Specifically, this number represents the relationship between the price a country receives for its exported goods and the price it pays for imported items. In general, these terms are considered to be more favorable when the price of exports exceeds the price of imports.

To calculate the TOT, the export price is divided by the import price. That result is then multiplied by 100 to determine the TOT percentage. If the final result exceeds 100%, the economy is generally considered healthy. Results under 100% can mean that the economy is not thriving. Lower results generally indicate that there is more money going out of the economy than coming in.

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Man climbing a rope

An increase in the terms of trade can mean the overall welfare of the country has improved, but not always. This often depends on the reason for the change in prices. The ratio can change based on several internal and external factors affecting a particular country, including supply and demand for the products that are imported and exported, as well as local and international economic health. A sudden TOT change can trigger balance of payment problems if the country depends on export receipts to pay for its imports.

The measurement can also be affected by the value of a country's currency. When interest rates rise, currency value generally also increases, and export prices typically go up as a result. While the country experiences a higher premium for its goods, it may have trouble finding buyers for these high-priced products. Conversely, if the price of exports fall, the county may be able to sell a much higher quantity of goods.

Historically, developing countries were considered to be at a disadvantage regarding terms of trade because exports are more often raw goods or commodities with lower prices than the manufactured goods imported from more developed counties. This theory has come under scrutiny as more study is completed on how TOT is affected by other factors, including a country's labor pool and foreign investments.

TOT is also known as the terms of trade index. When commodity export prices are compared with manufactured goods' import prices, the ratio is called the commodity terms of trade. Additionally, net barter terms of trade refers to the ratio between export and import prices when volume remains constant.

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Discussion Comments


@fify- Yea, I would say that developing nations face more problems and might not benefit from trade as much. The article said that they usually trade raw goods with lower prices too.

But I think that there is a risk of not profiting from trade for every country. That's why economists are developing policies to reduce this risk. They already say that opening up trade more and exporting more goods and a variety of goods reduces this risk. This is what all countries need to do.


I think developing countries tend to experience more economic turmoil than others. We always hear that when developed nations like Germany, Japan or the United States have economic problems, this impacts developing nations much more. Even a small decline in the economy in a leading developed nation may cause a recession in a developing nation.

That's why I think it's really difficult for developing nations to be in a favorable position with the terms of trade, more so than developed nations anyway.

What do you think?


This was an important lecture in microeconomics class. We had to do exercises where we looked at the terms of trade to figure out which country had a bigger comparative advantage from the trade.

I think the most important aspect of the terms of trade is that it actually helps countries make trade policy decisions. They can look at the trade data, see which goods they have a comparative advantage in and specialize in those goods to make more profits. When every country does this, they can all benefit from the terms of trade and prosper.


As with any of these sorts of statistics, terms of trade numbers can change dramatically if something happens within that country, like a national disaster, or even just fluctuate from year to year without a dramatic event. I've been told that they can show a country's economic strengths and weaknesses, though.

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