Friday, November 1, 2013

Germany's Turn

The US Treasury:
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. 
That is from the semi-annual "Report to Congress on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies" (pdf).

Typically the headline from such reports is about China, as the US criticizes its policy of intervening to keep the RMB undervalued to support a trade and current account surplus, but stops short of officially declaring it a "currency manipulator" which could trigger a conflict (which some, like Paul Krugman, have said the US should be willing to start).

The shift in focus to Germany is a sign the policy discussion is catching up to reality.  Although it is still intervening in the foreign exchange market, China has allowed a significant appreciation of the RMB (and even more in real terms) over the past several years and its current account surplus has narrowed.  That said, its "rebalancing" is still far from complete - consumption remains very low as a share of GDP; the decrease in the share of net exports seems to have been made up for by an increase in investment rather than consumption (with the usual caveat that the data are less than perfect..).

The biggest threat to the world economy now is a crisis in Europe, and while the ECB has managed to calm (for now at least) fears of a dramatic collapse, the Euro-area economy is still in lousy shape, which is a tragedy for the millions unemployed there, and a drag on economic activity in the rest of the world.

The Treasury is correct that Germany's current account surplus plays a role - stronger demand growth in Germany would help the suffering "periphery" of Europe (Spain, Italy, etc..) by creating more demand for their exports.  But Germany continues to be in denial, as Bloomberg reports:
Germany today reiterated its rejection of the Treasury report, saying it doesn’t merit criticism. “There are no imbalances in Germany which require a correction of our growth-friendly economic and fiscal policy,” Finance Ministry spokesman Martin Kotthaus told reporters in Berlin. 
The difficulty, in part, comes from the moralistic connotations of some of the language used to discuss international flows.  That is, Germany is running a current account "surplus" which results from a high level of "savings", and saving and having a surplus sound like the results of virtuous behavior (while having deficits and low savings connote profligacy).  So the idea that German economic policy is part of the problem is a hard sell to politicians, commentators and voters (and even some economists who should know better).  But it takes two to have an imbalance.  Or as Karl Whelan put it on Twitter:

One thing that is lost is that the current account surplus implies a lower standard of living for German citizens because it means they get to consume less of what they make.  In the second quarter of 2013, private consumption accounted for only 57% of Germany's GDP (via OECD), which is pretty low (in the US, which tends to be on the high side, its around 70%).  While exporting always seems to sound great to everyone, every BMW that is exported to the US is one less BMW that a German gets to drive (and the surplus implies that Germany is getting pieces of paper - not Mustangs - in return).  In the case of China, policies that led to a high share of exports could be defended as a development strategy - while this meant that the level of consumption was lower at any point in time, it may have generated a higher growth rate.  Its harder to apply such a rationale to a relatively high-income country like Germany.

However, though I don't agree with FT columnist Gideon Rachman's defense of Germany, he is correct that the Treasury's timing is poor (the report is required by law), coming on the heels of the reports that the US might have been spying on Angela Merkel, and that episodes like the debt ceiling wrangle seriously damage US economic policy credibility. 

The Economist's "Charlemagne" has a nice column this week on subject.

Update: See also Paul Krugman.

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