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How Opportunity Cost Sets the Boundaries of Trade

How Opportunity Cost Sets the Boundaries of Trade

This example shows that both parties can benefit from specializing in their comparative advantages and trading. By using the opportunity costs in this example, it is possible to identify the range of possible trades that would benefit each country.

Mexico started out, before specialization and trade, producing 4,000 pairs of shoes and 5,000 refrigerators (see this figure and this table). Then, in the numerical example given, Mexico shifted production toward its comparative advantage and produced 6,000 pairs of shoes but only 2,500 refrigerators. Thus, if Mexico can export no more than 2,000 pairs of shoes (giving up 2,000 pairs of shoes) in exchange for imports of at least 2,500 refrigerators (a gain of 2,500 refrigerators), it will be able to consume more of both goods than before trade.

Mexico will be unambiguously better off. Conversely, the United States started off, before specialization and trade, producing 5,000 pairs of shoes and 20,000 refrigerators. In the example, it then shifted production toward its comparative advantage, producing only 3,500 shoes but 26,000 refrigerators. If the United States can export no more than 6,000 refrigerators in exchange for imports of at least 1,500 pairs of shoes, it will be able to consume more of both goods and will be unambiguously better off.

The range of trades that can benefit both nations is shown in this table. For example, a trade where the U.S. exports 4,000 refrigerators to Mexico in exchange for 1,800 pairs of shoes would benefit both sides, in the sense that both countries would be able to consume more of both goods than in a world without trade.

The Range of Trades That Benefit Both the United States and Mexico

The U.S. economy, after specialization, will benefit if it:The Mexican economy, after specialization, will benefit if it:
Exports fewer than 6,000 refrigeratorsImports at least 2,500 refrigerators
Imports at least 1,500 pairs of shoesExports no more than 2,000 pairs of shoes

Trade allows each country to take advantage of lower opportunity costs in the other country. If Mexico wants to produce more refrigerators without trade, it must face its domestic opportunity costs and reduce shoe production. If Mexico, instead, produces more shoes and then trades for refrigerators made in the United States, where the opportunity cost of producing refrigerators is lower, Mexico can in effect take advantage of the lower opportunity cost of refrigerators in the United States. Conversely, when the United States specializes in its comparative advantage of refrigerator production and trades for shoes produced in Mexico, international trade allows the United States to take advantage of the lower opportunity cost of shoe production in Mexico.

The theory of comparative advantage explains why countries trade: they have different comparative advantages. It shows that the gains from international trade result from pursuing comparative advantage and producing at a lower opportunity cost. The following Work It Out feature shows how to calculate absolute and comparative advantage and the way to apply them to a country’s production.

Calculating Absolute and Comparative Advantage

In Canada, a worker can produce 20 barrels of oil or 40 tons of lumber. In Venezuela, a worker can produce 60 barrels of oil or 30 tons of lumber.

CountryOil (barrels) Lumber (tons)
Canada20or40
Venezuela60or30
  1. Who has the absolute advantage in the production of oil or lumber? How can you tell?
  2. Which country has a comparative advantage in the production of oil?
  3. Which country has a comparative advantage in producing lumber?
  4. In this example, is absolute advantage the same as comparative advantage, or not?
  5. In what product should Canada specialize? In what product should Venezuela specialize?

Step 1. Make a table like the table above.

Step 2. To calculate absolute advantage, look at the larger of the numbers for each product. One worker in Canada can produce more lumber (40 tons versus 30 tons), so Canada has the absolute advantage in lumber. One worker in Venezuela can produce 60 barrels of oil compared to a worker in Canada who can produce only 20.

Step 3. To calculate comparative advantage, find the opportunity cost of producing one barrel of oil in both countries. The country with the lowest opportunity cost has the comparative advantage. With the same labor time, Canada can produce either 20 barrels of oil or 40 tons of lumber. So in effect, 20 barrels of oil is equivalent to 40 tons of lumber: 20 oil = 40 lumber. Divide both sides of the equation by 20 to calculate the opportunity cost of one barrel of oil in Canada. 20/20 oil = 40/20 lumber. 1 oil = 2 lumber. To produce one additional barrel of oil in Canada has an opportunity cost of 2 lumber. Calculate the same way for Venezuela: 60 oil = 30 lumber. Divide both sides of the equation by 60. One oil in Venezuela has an opportunity cost of 1/2 lumber. Because 1/2 lumber < 2 lumber, Venezuela has the comparative advantage in producing oil.

Step 4. Calculate the opportunity cost of one lumber by reversing the numbers, with lumber on the left side of the equation. In Canada, 40 lumber is equivalent in labor time to 20 barrels of oil: 40 lumber = 20 oil. Divide each side of the equation by 40. The opportunity cost of one lumber is 1/2 oil. In Venezuela, the equivalent labor time will produce 30 lumber or 60 oil: 30 lumber = 60 oil. Divide each side by 30. One lumber has an opportunity cost of two oil. Canada has the lower opportunity cost in producing lumber.

Step 5. In this example, absolute advantage is the same as comparative advantage. Canada has the absolute and comparative advantage in lumber; Venezuela has the absolute and comparative advantage in oil.

Step 6. Canada should specialize in what it has a relative lower opportunity cost, which is lumber, and Venezuela should specialize in oil. Canada will be exporting lumber and importing oil, and Venezuela will be exporting oil and importing lumber.


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