Germany: Too Much Virtue Is A Sin

The burden of adjustment is being disproportionately placed on peripheral European countries, exacerbating extremely high unemployment. What is extraordinary is that the criticism should come from the US government before it is raised by the European Commission.

On 30 October the Office of International Affairs of the US Treasury issued its customary semi-annual Report to Congress on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies”, in consultation with the Fed’s Board of Governors and IMF management and staff. The Report usually concentrates on China bashing for the undervaluation of the renmimbi, and this time is no exception: “The RMB is appreciating on a trade-weighted basis [by 6.6% on a real effective basis], but not as fast or by as much as is needed [an additional 5-10%]”. But the Report in addition vigorously criticizes Germany for its record trade surplus, which is regarded as a brake on the recovery of the Eurozone countries that experience a corresponding trade deficit and on global growth.

Among the Report’s Key Findings (p.3):“Within the euro area, countries with large and persistent surpluses need to take action to boost domestic demand growth and shrink their surpluses. Germany has maintained a large current account surplus throughout the euro area financial crisis, and in 2012, Germany’s nominal current account surplus was larger than that of China. Germany’s anemic pace of domestic demand growth and dependence on exports have hampered rebalancing at a time when many other euro-area countries have been under severe pressure to curb demand and compress imports in order to promote adjustment. The net result has been a deflationary bias for the euro area, as well as for the world economy.”

The main text of the report develops this proposition further: much of the decline in global current account imbalances that occurred in recent years reflects a demand contraction in deficit countries rather than strong domestic demand growth in current account surplus countries. Germany in particular has continued to run a very large and persistent surplus, raising the eurozone's overall current account, which was close to balance in 2009-2011, to a surplus of 2.3 percent of GDP in the first half of 2013. “Germany’s current account surplus rose above 7 percent in the first half of 2013, while the current account surplus for the Netherlands was almost 10 percent. Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain are all now running current account surpluses as import demand in those economies has declined. Thus, the burden of adjustment is being disproportionately placed on peripheral European countries, exacerbating extremely high unemployment, especially among youth in these countries, while Europe’s overall adjustment is essentially premised on demand emanating from outside of Europe rather than addressing the shortfalls in demand that exist within Europe.”

The section on the Euroarea emphasises the point: “Expansion was supported by domestic demand growth in Germany - though growth in Germany still continues to rely on positive net exports, which continues to delay the euro area’s external adjustment process – and on domestic demand in France.”

Nobody can argue with such propositions, which are based on a correct interpretation of well established facts, and are not at all new. The adoption by Germany of more expansionary policies has been advocated by many economists, from Martin Wolf (FT) to Paul Krugman (Those Depressing Germans, NYT 3 November 2013), from Jean Pisani-Ferry (Bruegel) to Mario Seminerio (La Cura Letale, Rome, 2012), to the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde as well as several IMF documents. What is extraordinary is that the criticism should come from the US government and from research circles before it is raised by the European Commission.

EC practice suffers from a totally arbitrary and unwarranted asymmetry in treating surpluses and deficit countries: a current account deficit of 4% of GDP triggers off a disciplinary procedure for the offending country, while a 6% surplus averaged over three years is necessary before the EC takes any notice of that imbalance, and even then only perfunctorily. In 2012 Germany recorded a 7% record surplus but the three year average was just under 6% and nothing was said.

This is a general problem that Maynard Keynes had tried to address at the Bretton Woods Conference (1944). His Plan assigned to every country a “bancor” maximum overdraft facility equal to its average trade over five years; a penalty interest rates of 10% would apply to deficit countries above that limit, as well as to surplus countries on anything over and above any surplus exceeding half the size of the permitted overdraft, forcing compensatory exchange rate adjustments or capital flows, and subject to confiscation of residual excess reserves above the permitted surplus at the end of the year. “Nothing so imaginative and so ambitious had ever been discussed", commented Lionel Robbins. But the US was then the world’s biggest creditor and the Plan by the US representative Harry Webster White was preferred by the 42 countries attending the Conference. The burden of balancing trade was placed on deficit countries and no limit was set on surplus countries, thus necessarily impressing a deflationary bias on the nature of trade adjustments. The replication of this approach by the European Union is one of the many EU original sins.

There is a well known tenet of Keynesian economics, resulting from national income accounting and not at all dependent on the validity of Keynesian fiscal policies, and therefore unchallenged: the excess of exports X over imports M, plus the excess of government expenditure E over taxation T, plus the excess of private investment I over savings S, must necessarily add up to zero. Thus a country experiencing a trade deficit must necessarily run a government deficit and/or a compensatory excess of investment over savings, hard to accomplish in the face of an otherwise shrinking demand. In other words, the German trade surplus makes it all that much harder for its deficit trade partners to balance their public accounts.

On 2 November the Economist’s Charlemagne column "Fawlty Europe" commented on “Germany’s obsession with competitiveness”… “For Germany booming exports are the measure of economic virility.” It is true that Germany is reaping the benefits of wage and price reductions (the internal devaluation) undertaken before the crisis; in the middle of the crisis any country adopting the same policy would pay the price of worsening that crisis. Germany also benefits from earlier structural reforms politically hard to replicate, and from the relatively price-inelastic demand for its high technology exports. But surplus countries like Germany, the Netherland and Austria are also benefiting from an artificially low exchange rate, with respect to the increasingly stronger exchange rate that would prevail if those countries were using their own currency instead of the euro. And, be that as it may, by holding down wages and failing to promote investment and growth they make trade adjustment in Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece – which has occurred – deflationary. Debtor nations were forced, mostly under German pressure, into austerity eliminating trade deficits at the cost of perversely rising debt/GDP ratios (see our earlier post on the subject), while German surpluses persisted and their failure to adjust magnified the costs of austerity and contributed to keep the world economy depressed.

Charlemagne notes that Germany has also benefited from straight protectionism, having failed to liberalise its construction and services.  While these sectors are not a significant share of German exports, a recent OECD study stresses that in general services have a much bigger impact on trade and trade competitiveness if we look at their inputs actually embodied in exports, i.e. adopting a Value Added approach to trade accounting. Charlemagne recommends to that Germany could do more to invest in education and infrastructure, and make child care available for working women.

Moreover German energy-intensive producers are benefiting from an implicit subsidy on their electricity consumption, through exemption from the expensive surcharge used to finance Energiewende, the accelerated introduction of renewable energy scheduled to reach 35% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Earlier this year European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger told a group of industry leaders that the price concessions for energy-intensive companies in Germany clearly amount to “inadmissible” subsidy levels. German business are concerned that they might have to repay hundreds of millions of euros to the German government.

Only on 13 November did Jose’ Manuel Barroso, the EU President, announce an “in depth analysis on the high German trade surplus”, with a view to understand whether Germany can make a larger contribution to the re-balancing of the European economy”. There is the prospect of a continued trade surplus of 7% in 2013, and the upwards revision of the 2012 trade surplus brings already the three year average above 6% in 2010-2012. Indeed “Following statistical revisions, the indicator has exceeded the threshold each year since 2007” and “the surplus is expected to remain above the indicative threshold over the forecast horizon, thus suggesting that it is not a short lived cyclical phenomenon” (EC 2013). German savings exceed investment, and despite boasting the second lowest share of private sector debt in GDP (firms and households) and low interest rates, private sector de-leveraging has continued, failing to boost demand; capital formation has declined last year. This calls for some action, not least to reduce the pressure for euro revaluation. But the bottom line of the EC document is simply that “Overall, the Commission finds it useful to conduct an in-depth analysis with a view to assessing whether imbalances exist” (italics in the original).

German press and politicians have reacted strongly to the US Treasury accusations and to the EC initiative. The German Economics Ministry issued a strongly worded statement, saying that Germany's surplus is "a sign of the competitiveness of the German economy and global demand for quality products from Germany." It dismissed the accusations as “incomprehensible” and challenged the US to "analyze its own economic situation."

A memo to finance minister Schäuble reads: "The German current account surplus offers no reason for concern for Germany, the euro zone or the world economy"; Berlin is pursuing a course of "growth-friendly consolidation," and there are no imbalances "that would require a correction of our economic and fiscal policy." See also “Complaints about German Exports Unfounded”, by Jung-Reiermann-Schmitz, 5 November, and “Raw Nerve: Germany Seethes at US Economic Criticism” by Alessi, 31 October.

It has been pointed out that the prospective new grand coalition between the CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has already agreed to increase government investment and the minimum wage, both of which should stimulate domestic demand.  But the formation of that government – let alone its programme – is still under negotiation.

The real issue is a EU governance deficit. The worst thing that could happen to Germany as a result of an adverse “in depth analysis” by the Commission is a reprimand by Mr Marco Buti's Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. No Comment seems necessary.