Olli Rehn wrote a balanced piece on Germany’s current account surplus. To sum it up:
- He acknowledges that Germany’s surplus is a problem.
- He acknowledges (albeit indirectly) that the initial source of the problem were capital flows from Germany and the core to the periphery; flows that did not go into productive investment but fueled bubbles.
- He (correctly) argues that over the long run some excess savings from Germany is justified by the need to provide for an ageing population.
- He points out that investment has been too low and needs to increase (possible within the framework of an energy transition).
- He also mentions, without mentioning it, the problem of excessively low wages and pauperisation of the labour force, calling for increases in wages and reduction in taxes to boost domestic demand.
This seems to me a reasonable analysis, and I would welcome an official position of the Commission along these lines. Yet, I think that what is missing in Rehn’s piece, and in most of the current debate, is a clear articulation of between the long and the short run.
I would not object on the need for Germany to run modes surpluses on average over the next years, to pay for future pensions and welfare. It is after all a mature and ageing country. Even more, I would agree with the argument that low wages need to increase, and that bottlenecks that prevent domestic demand expansion should be removed. In other words, I would most likely agree on the Commission’s prescriptions for the medium-to-long run.
Nevertheless, there is a huge hole in Olli Rehn’s analysis, that worries me a bit. Rehn seems to overlook the need to do something here and now. Today, with the periphery of the eurozone stuck in recession, emerging economies sputtering, and continuing jobless growth in the US, the world desperately needs a boost from countries that can afford it. And unfortunately there are not many of these.
Germany is instead siphoning off global demand, making the rest of the world carry its economy when it should do the opposite. As a quick reversal of private demand is unlikely, (this, I repeat should be a medium run target), I see no other option in hte very short run than a substantial fiscal expansion.
A cooperative Germany should implement short run expansionary policies (the need for public investment is undeniable), while working to rebalance consumption, investment and savings in the medium run, with the objective of a small current account surplus in the medium run.
That, incidentally, would not make them Good Samaritans. Ending this endless recession in the eurozone (yes I know, it is technically over; but how happy can we be with growth rates in the zero-point range?) is in the best interest of Germany as much as of the rest of the eurozone (and of the world).
A clear articulation between the different priorities in the short and in the medium-long run would benefit the debate. The problem is that then Olli Rehn should acknowledge that in the short run there is no alternative to expansionary fiscal policies in the eurozone core. That would be asking too much…
Germany rejected the US Treasury’s criticism of the country’s export-focused economic policies as “incomprehensible”. Much has been said about that. Let me just add some pieces of evidence, just to gather them all in the same place.
Exhibit #1: Net Lending Evolution
Note#1 : I took net lending because because net income flows from residents to non residents (not captured by the current account) may be an important part of a country’s net position (most notably in Ireland). Note #2: I took away France and Italy from the two groups called “Core” and “Periphery”, because their net position was relatively small as percentage of GDP in 2008, and changed relatively little.
Following the widely discussed U.S. Treasury report on foreign economic and currency policies, that for the first time blames Germany explicitly for its record trade surpluses, I published an op-ed on the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore (in Italian), comparing Germany with China. My argument there is the following:
- Before the crisis the excess savings of China and Germany, the two largest world exporters, contributed to the growing global imbalances by absorbing the excess demand of the U.S. and of other economies (e.g., the Eurozone periphery) that made the world economy fragile. (more here)
- In the past decade, China seems to have grasped the problems yielded by an export-led growth model, and tried to rebalance away from exports (and lately investment) towards consumption (more here). The adjustment is slow, sometimes incoherent, but it is happening.
- Germany walked a different path, proudly claiming that the compression of domestic demand and increased exports were the correct way out of the crisis (as well as the correct model for long-term growth)
- Germany’s economic size, its position of creditor, and its relatively better performance following the sovereign debt crisis, (together with a certain ideological complicity from EC institutions) allowed Germany to impose the model based on austerity and deflation to peripheral eurozone countries in crisis.
- Even abstracting from the harmful effects of austerity (more here), I then pointed out that the German model cannot work for two reasons: The first is the many times recalled fallacy of composition): Not everybody can export at the same time. The second, more political, is that by betting on an export-led growth model Germany and Europe will be forced to rely on somebody else’s growth to ensure their prosperity. It is now U.S. imports; it may be China’s tomorrow, and who know who the day after tomorrow. This is of course a source of economic fragility, but also of irrelevance on the political arena, where influence goes hand in hand with economic power. Choosing the German economic model Europe would condemn itself to a secondary role.
I would add that the generalization of the German model to the whole eurozone is leading to increasing current account surpluses. Therefore, this is not simply a European problem anymore. By running excess savings as a whole, we are collectively refusing to chip in the ongoing fragile recovery. The rest of the world is right to be annoyed at Germany’s surpluses. We continue to behave like Lilliput, refusing to play our role of large economy.
Let me conclude by noticing that today in his blog Krugman shows that sometimes a chart is worth a thousand (actually 748) words:
Wolfgang Munchau has an excellent piece on today’s Financial Times, where he challenges the increasingly widespread (and unjustified) optimism about the end of the EMU crisis. The premise of the piece is that for the end of the crisis to be durable, it must pass through adjustment between core and periphery. He cites similar statements made in the latest IMF World Economic Outlook. This is good news per se, because nowadays, with the exception of Germany it became common knowledge that the EMU imbalances are structural and not simply the product of late night parties in the periphery. But what are Munchau’s reasons for pessimism? Read More
Sebastian Dullien has a very interesting Policy Brief on the “German Model”, that is worth reading. Analyzing the Schroeder reforms of 2003-2005, it shows that it fundamentally boiled down to encouraging part-time contracts, but it did not touch the core of German labour market regulation:
Note, however, what the Schröder reforms did not do. They did not touch the German system of collective wage bargaining. They did not change the rules on working time. They did not make hiring and firing fundamentally easier. They also did not introduce the famous working-time accounts and the compensation for short working hours, which helped Germany through the crisis of 2008–9.
Thus, Dullien concludes, the standard Berlin View narrative, i.e. the success of the German Economy is due to fiscal consolidation and structural reforms in particular in labour markets, needs to be reassessed to say the very least. But there is more than this.
Just a quick note. The two largest surplus economies have lately decided to take radically different paths. China expressed concern for the imbalances lying behind its large current account surplus, and pledged since at least 2009 to re-balance its growth model towards higher domestic demand. I had already discussed that a little more than one year ago, noticing how the challenge for China was to steer away not only from exports, but also from excessive investment. In the same piece I had argued that while China seemed fully conscious of its contribution to the global imbalances that had led to the crisis, Germany had decided to walk the opposite path.
And here we are. With timely synchronization, we learn that wages in Bavaria will increase by 5.6% over the next two years, maybe triggering a more generalized increase. Or maybe not. While in China they increased 17% in the year 2012.
Even taking into account differences in inflation and in growth, the difference is revealing. China is actually playing the game it committed to. Not only it tries to reduce its dependence on foreign demand; but, domestically, it is trying to boost consumption and to curb investment.
In the meantime Germany is stuck with its small-country syndrome: export-led growth and restraints to domestic demand (both public and private). In spite of recent troubles, austerity remains the course Europe is following (with disastrous results). It is telling that even when partially acknowledging that austerity did not bring the fruits she hoped for, Angela Merkel can only suggest, as an alternative, structural reforms to boost competitiveness. Expanding domestic demand has not, is not, and will not be an option for the German government.
The Berlin View is alive and kicking.
Update: just a link to Wolfgang Munchau, who seems to make a similar argument.
Austerity partisans had a couple of rough weeks, with highlights such as the Reinhart and Rogoff blunder, and Mr Barroso’s acknowledgement that the European periphery suffers from austerity fatigue.
In spite of the media trumpeting it all over the place, and proclaiming the end of the austerity war, it is hard to believe that eurozone austerity will be softened. Sure, peripheral countries will obtain some (much needed) breathing space. But this is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a significant policy reversal in the EMU.
Eurostat GDP data are out. The eurozone is in recession, and it is worse than expected (-0.6% in 2012). Austerity is not working, and is recessionary. Wow, who would have said it…
Seriously, so long for the widespread optimism of a few weeks ago. The crisis is not over, we actually are in the middle of it. The way I see it, things will get worse before they get better (if they do get better).
Also interesting, Germany’s export-led growth strategy is panting. The fourth quarter of 2012 was rather bad (worse than in France, for example), and this is due to lower investment on one side, and to weaker trade (exports fell more than imports). Here is an excerpt of today’s press release of the German statistical office, Destatis:
In a quarter-on-quarter comparison (adjusted for price, seasonal and calendar variations), signals from the domestic territory were rather mixed according to provisional calculations: household and government final consumption expenditure went up slightly. In contrast, gross fixed capital formation in construction decreased a bit and gross fixed capital formation in machinery and equipment was down markedly on the third quarter of 2012. The decline of the gross domestic product at the end of 2012 was mainly due to the comparably weak German foreign trade: in the final quarter of 2012, exports of goods went down much more than imports of goods.
Germany stubbornly refuses to accommodate austerity in the periphery with a domestic impulsion. This makes adjustment for the rest more painful, and impacts expectations at home. This is why investment dropped significantly. My take on this is that if Germany had been only moderately more expansionist at home, expectations would not have been dashed (even if slightly increasing, in January the IFO index of German business confidence stagnates at around 104 at the moment, after hitting an all time high of 115.40 in February of 2011). And investment figures would be substantially better.
So, we learned today that austerity does indeed reduce growth, and that it spills to other countries. Two surprises in one day. It will need a hell of an effort to forget all of this before tomorrow!
Today the Irish people will vote on the Treaty “on the Stability, Coordination and Governance in the EMU”, also known as the “fiscal compact”. This referendum is of paramount importance for the whole European Union. I recently wrote an editorial on the French daily Le Monde, together with Imola Streho, explaining why we believe it to be poorly designed and economically ill conceived. Here is an English version.
Martin Wolf has a very interesting piece on China’s attempt to rebalance its growth model from exports to domestic demand. Wolf remarkably shows how this attempt has been going on for at least a decade, with unequal pace, and several stop-and-go. I’d add that the crisis itself played a contradictory role. China on one side was one of the first countries in 2009 to implement a robust stimulus plan amounting to more than 10% of GDP; on the other, it did not resist (as most countries) more or less hidden protectionist measures and currency manipulation. Wolf concludes that, while successful, the rebalancing from external to domestic demand led to excessive (and not necessarily productive) investment. The new rebalancing challenge of China lies in increasing income and consumption of its population.
What I take from this is that China fully grasps its new role in the world economy. Its leadership understood long ago that the transition from developing/emerging economy to fully developed economy needed to pass among other things through less dependence on exports. A large dynamic economy cannot rely on growth in the rest of the world for its prosperity. Even the debate on reforming the welfare state and on health care had as one of his reasons the necessity to reduce precautionary savings. The rebalancing act is long and unsteady, but definitively under way.
It is also worth noticing that a better balance between domestic and external demand in the large economies is crucial element in reducing the macroeconomic fragility of the world economy through decreasing trade imbalances.
It is striking, in contrast, how Europe remains trapped in a sort of small country syndrome. The “Berlin View” permeating the Fiscal Compact advocates fiscal discipline and domestic demand compression, in order to improve competitiveness and to foster export-led growth. Besides the fact that it is not working, this is equivalent to tying Europe’s fate to the performance of the rest of the world, giving up the ambition of being a major player in the world economic arena. What a difference with the ambition and the forward looking attitude of China…