Yesterday’s headlines were all for Germany’s poor performance in the second quarter of 2014 (GDP shrank of 0.2%, worse than expected). That was certainly bad news, even if in my opinion the real bad news are hidden in the latest ECB bulletin, also released yesterday (but this will be the subject of another post).
Not surprisingly, the German slowdown stirred heated discussion. In particular Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor, blamed the slowdown on geopolitical risks in eastern Europe and the Near East. Maybe he meant to be reassuring, but in fact his statement should make us all worry even more. Let me quote myself (ach!), from last November:
Even abstracting from the harmful effects of austerity (more here), 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 have emphasized the point I want to stress, once again, here: adopting an export-led model structurally weakens a country, that becomes unable to find, domestically, the resources for sustainable and robust growth. And here we are, the rest of the world sneezes, and Germany catches a cold. The problem is that we are catching it together with Germany:
The ratio of German GDP over domestic demand has been growing steadily since 1999 (only in 19 quarters out of 72, barely a third, domestic demand grew faster than GDP). And what is more bothersome is that since 2010 the same model has been
adopted by imposed to the rest of the eurozone. The red line shows the same ratio for the remaining 11 original members of the EMU, that was at around one for most of the period, and turned frankly positive with the crisis and implementation of austerity.It is the Berlin View at work, brilliantly and scaringly exposed by Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann just a couple of days ago. We are therefore increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for our (scarce) growth (the difference between the ratio and 1 is the current account balance).
It is easy today to blame Putin, or China, or tapering, or alien invasions, for our woes. Easy but wrong. Our pain is self-inflicted. Time to change.
I am puzzled by Wolfgang Münchau’s latest piece in the Financial Times. Let me start by quoting the end:
[…] The ECB should have started large-scale asset purchase a year ago. It certainly should do so now. The EU should allow governments to overshoot their deficit targets this year, and suspend the fiscal compact, which will result in further fiscal pain from 2016.
Even a casual reader of this blog will quickly realize that it would be hard for me to agree more with these statements. The macroeconomic stance at the EMU level has been seriously inappropriate since 2010, with fiscal policy globally restrictive (thank you austerity), and monetary policy way too timid.
So, what is the problem? The problem is the first part of Münchau’s editorial, in which he attacks the Bundesbank for its plea in favour of faster wage growth in Germany (the Buba asked for an average wage increase of 3%).
This is frankly hard to understand. The eurozone problems, and it’s flirting with deflation, stem from the victory of the Berlin View, that laid the burden of adjustment on the shoulders of peripheral countries alone.
The call for wage increases in Germany signals, and it was about time, that even conservative German institutions are beginning to realize the obvious: there will be no rebalancing, and therefore no robust recovery, unless German domestic demand recovers. This means a fiscal expansion, as well as private expenditure recovery. Unsurprisingly, the Buba rules out the former, but it is nice to see that at least the latter has become an objective. Faster wage growth may not make a huge difference in quantitative terms, but it still marks an important change of attitude. This is a huge step away from the low-wage-high-productivity-export-led model that the Bundesbank and the German government have been preaching (and imposing to their partners).
Münchau is right in calling for a different policy mix in the EMU. But this is complementary, not alternative, to a change in the German growth model. I would have expected him to applaud a small but potentially important change in attitude. Instead I have read a virulent attack. Puzzled, puzzled…
The newly born Italian magazine Pagina99 published a piece I wrote on rebalancing in Europe after the German elections. Here is an English version.
The preliminary estimates for 2013 released by the German Federal Statistical Office, depict a mixed picture. Timid signs of revival in domestic demand do not seem able to compensate for the slowdown in exports to other countries in the euro zone, still mired in weak or negative growth rates. The German economy does not seem able to ignore the economic health of its European partners. In spite of fierce resistance of Germany policymakers, there is increasing consensus that the key to a durable exit from the Eurozone crisis can only be found in restoring symmetry in the adjustment following the crisis. The reduction of expenditure and deficits in the Eurozone periphery, that is currently happening, needs to be matched by an increase of expenditure and imports by the core, in particular by the Netherlands and Germany (Finland and Austria have actually drastically reduced their trade surpluses). In light of the coalition agreement signed by the CDU and the SPD, it seems unlikely that major institutional innovation will happen in the Eurozone, or that private demand in Germany will increase sufficiently fast to have an impact on imbalances at the aggregate level. This leaves little alternative to an old-fashioned fiscal expansion in Germany.
The Eurozone reaction to the sovereign debt crisis, so far, has focused on enhancing discipline and fiscal restraint. Germany, the largest economy of the zone, and its largest creditor, was pivotal in shaping this approach to the crisis. The SPD, substantially shared the CDU-Liberal coalition view that the crisis was caused by fiscal profligacy of peripheral member countries, and that little if any risk sharing should be put in place (be it a properly functioning banking union, or some form of debt mutualisation). The SPD also seems to support Mrs Merkel’s strategy of discretely looking elsewhere when the ECB is forced to stretch its mandate to respond to exceptional challenges, while refusing all discussion on introducing the reform of the bank statute in a wider debate on Eurozone governance. This consensus explains why European matters take relatively little space in the 185 pages coalition agreement.
This does not mean that the CDU-SPD government will have no impact on Eurozone rebalancing. The most notable element of the coalition agreement is the introduction of a minimum wage that should at least partially attenuate the increasing dualism of the German labour market. This should in turn lead, together with the reduction of retirement age to 63 years, to an increase of consumption. The problem is that these measures will be phased-in slowly enough for their macroeconomic impact to be diluted and delayed.
Together with European governance, the other missing character in the coalition agreement is investment; this is surprising because the negative impact of the currently sluggish investment rates on the future growth potential of the German economy is acknowledged by both parties; yet, the negotiations did not include direct incentives to investment spending. The introduction of the minimum wage, on the other hand, is likely to have conflicting effects. On the one hand, by reducing margins, it will have a negative impact on investment spending. But on the other, making labour more expensive, it could induce a substitution of capital for labour, thus boosting investment. Which of these two effects will prevail is today hard to predict. But it is safe to say that changes in investment are not likely to be massive.
To summarize, the coalition agreement will have a small and delayed impact on private expenditure in Germany. Similarly, the substantial consensus on current European policies, leaves virtually no margin for the implementation of rebalancing mechanisms within the Eurozone governance structure.
Thus, there seems to be little hope that symmetry in Eurozone rebalancing is restored, unless the only remaining tool available for domestic demand expansion, fiscal policy, is used. The German government should embark on a vast fiscal expansion program, focusing on investment in physical and intangible capital alike. There is room for action. Public investment has been the prime victim of the recent fiscal restraint, and Germany has embarked in a huge energetic transition program that could be accelerated with beneficial effects on aggregate demand in the short run, and on potential GDP in the long run. Finally, Germany’s public finances are in excellent health, and yields are at an all-times low, making any public investment program short of pure waste profitable. Besides stubbornness and ideology, what retains Mrs Merkel?
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: