Much of what Americans know about the United States’ role in the world economy stems from BEA’s international trade and investment statistics. BEA conducts its own surveys of multinational businesses and international trade in services. Data from the Census Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, the Treasury Department, and other federal agencies are also important for producing BEA’s international statistics.

What can you do with international trade and investment numbers?

Answer questions like:

  • With which countries does the U.S. have large trade deficits or surpluses?
  • What are the United States' top exports of goods? What about services?
  • How many U.S. workers are employed by foreign-owned firms? In which industries?

U.S. negotiators use these statistics when making trade agreements with other countries. These numbers inform Congress and other policymakers about trends affecting American businesses, economic growth, and jobs. They help businesspeople understand the changing U.S. and global marketplaces and make decisions about investment and hiring.

What types of international data does BEA produce?

International Transactions (Balance of Payments)

The international transactions accounts (also called the balance of payments) are a statistical summary of economic activity between U.S. residents and the residents of other countries, organized into three accounts: the current account, the capital account, and the financial account.

The current account records exports and imports of goods and services, income from U.S.-owned assets and investments abroad, and income from foreign-owned assets and investments in the United States. Employee pay, U.S. government grants, and personal remittances are also included. The current account resembles an income statement for the entire U.S. economy. The current account balance—calculated as exports of goods and services and income receipts minus imports of goods and services and income payments—is a popular economic indicator.

The capital account mainly records capital transfers, such as debt forgiveness and disaster-related insurance settlements. The financial account records investment flows between the United States and other countries. These flows could take the form of U.S. deposits in foreign banks, loans to foreign persons, purchases of foreign stocks and bonds, or funding of foreign affiliates of U.S. multinationals. Similarly, transactions of foreign persons with U.S. banks, in U.S. financial markets, and with U.S. affiliates of foreign multinationals are recorded.

Preliminary quarterly statistics are published with news releases in March, June, September and December; they’re updated the following quarter to incorporate new information. Annual statistics are released in March.

Trade in Goods and Services

BEA's international trade statistics are best known for capturing the "trade balance." That's the difference between U.S. exports (sales of goods and services to residents of other countries) and U.S. imports (purchases of goods and services from residents of other countries). BEA also estimates the United States' trade deficits or surpluses with individual nations. And we have breakdowns of the types of goods and services traded with those nations.

BEA and the Census Bureau jointly release monthly trade in goods and services statistics.

International Services (Expanded Detail)

In addition to our trade in goods and services statistics, BEA also produces expanded international services data that give a broader and more detailed look at the services flowing between the United States and other countries, including those delivered through the subsidiaries of multinational businesses.

The expanded international services data provide:

  • More detail on services that are imported and exported – that is, purchases and sales of services between U.S. residents and residents of other countries.
  • Data on services supplied in a different way – through local affiliates of multinational enterprises. That would include, for example, a Canadian company that set up an office in the United States to sell services to Americans. Or a U.S. company selling its services through affiliates located in Europe.

Being located close to customers is often important for services such as wholesale and retail trade, finance and insurance, or information services. As a result, many multinational businesses provide services through affiliates located in, or close to, the foreign markets they serve. Capturing data about these businesses enhances understanding of the international market in services.

The annual international services report is usually published in the October issue of the Survey of Current Business.

International Investment Position

The international investment position accounts represent a statistical balance sheet between the United States and the world. They show the accumulated value of U.S.-owned financial assets in other countries and U.S. liabilities to residents of other countries at the end of each quarter. The difference between assets and liabilities is the U.S. net international investment position.

Data are shown by categories of investment, such as direct investment, portfolio investment, and reserve assets, each with expanded detail available. Understanding the types of investment held by foreign owners can shed light on the vulnerability of the U.S. economy to changes in external market conditions.

News releases with preliminary quarterly statistics come out in March, June, September and December, and the data is updated the following quarter. Annual statistics are released in March.

Direct Investment by Country and Industry and New Foreign Direct Investment in the United States

When a foreign investor owns at least 10 percent of a U.S. business, that's inward foreign direct investment, representing foreign control or significant influence over the U.S. business. Likewise, U.S. direct investment abroad, or outward investment, is a U.S. investor owning at least 10 percent of a foreign business. Data on direct investment includes transactions between affiliates and their owners, the income that the investors earn on their direct investments, and the cumulative value – or position – of inward and outward direct investment.

BEA also reports each year on new foreign direct investment – expenditures to acquire, establish, or expand a U.S. business. This includes a look at "greenfield" projects, where foreign investors establish a new business or expand an existing business on U.S. soil. The statistics include how much new foreign investment goes to each state, which foreign industries and countries are investing, and employment numbers.

Data by country and industry are published annually in July, as are statistics on new foreign direct investment.

Activities of U.S Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) and Activities of U.S. Affiliates of Foreign MNEs

These statistics show a variety of indicators about the financial structure and operations of multinational enterprises that have a U.S. presence. That includes U.S. parent companies with affiliates abroad, and foreign parent companies with affiliates in the United States. Data include value added, sales, employment, trade, research and development, and other measures by country and by industry. For example, you can see the how many people U.S. businesses employ abroad, or how many people in the United States work for businesses with direct foreign ownership.

Data is released in August and November.

Learn more:

Guide to BEA’s Direct Investment Surveys PDF

Guide to BEA’s Services Surveys PDF

Video: The Survey of New Foreign Direct Investment (BE-13)

U.S. International Economic Accounts: Concepts and Methods

Definition of International Services