Prospects for the European Economy

We can conduct a similar analysis of the European economy as we did for the US economy.

We will restrict our discussion to the Euro Area, the countries which share a common currency, the euro. The euro creates a unique, separate trading bloc, the internal dynamics of which need to be understood both to assess the performance of the individual member countries, and to assess their place in the world economy.

Within the larger scheme of the globalist production and consumption network, the Euro Area plays a unique role. It functions neither as a supply region nor a demand region. The Euro Area’s role vis-à-vis the rest of the world is that of a demand region for raw materials/energy, and a supply region for manufactured products.[1]

Up until 2012, it ran a roughly even balance of trade with the rest of the world, as can be seen from the following graph. Euro Area Balance of Trade

Hence, in the run-up to the credit crisis of 2008, the Euro Area did not run a sizeable trade deficit, as one might expect given its status as a region full of First World “rich” countries.

But this is not to say that it was not afflicted by similar problems of trade imbalances. The difference is that these imbalances manifested themselves within the currency area. In this sense, the Euro Area acted as mini-world economy, manifesting similar consumer/producer relations. Here as well the divorce between production and consumption reared its head.

If we break down the figures for separate countries, this becomes clear. In the following graph, we see development of the current accounts of eight key Euro Area countries.[2]

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Prior to 2001 and the advent of the euro, the current accounts of these countries ran closely together. France and Italy, for example, usually ran current account surpluses, while Germany ran current account deficits. But all of this changed with the advent of the euro. From that point we see wide discrepancies between the various current accounts. Germany and the Netherlands begin running significant surpluses, while countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece begin running significant deficits.

We can glean from this that the Euro Area itself became divided into supply regions and demand regions. Supply regions run trade surpluses; demand regions run deficits. The major net suppliers were Germany and the Netherlands. The major net demanders were Spain, Greece, and Portugal.

We can also glean from this that consumption was paid for, not by reciprocal production, but by debt. As we have learned by now from previous posts, trade imbalances have to be “financed”: in other words, they are paid for by debt. When trade imbalances are incurred, the countries running trade surpluses are also exporting capital: this is called a capital deficit. What they are doing is exporting demand, by exporting excess savings. To put it bluntly: they are extending the credit to the consuming countries that these countries require to buy their production.

Such an arrangement was made palatable by the euro. The euro was to be the panacea for all economic ills. Participation in the euro was to automatically bring participation in prosperity. And in the early years of the euro project, that surely seemed to be the case. Funds flowed freely from North to South, fueling a boom across these countries, especially in the period 2005-2007, as the following graph indicates.

euro area gdp growth splits

Source: World Economic Outlook Database, April 2016

But this growth was fueled by the debt implicit in the current account imbalances shown in the previous graph. Capital exports (i.e., credit from the exporting to the importing countries) were fueling consumption. The assumption was that the euro constituted surety for this indebtedness. The debtor/consumer countries being locked into the arrangement, they would not be able to devalue their currencies to reduce the value of that debt. And so it was safe to furnish the credit that would pay for the southern countries’ consumption.

Spain was at the epicenter of this debt/consumption nexus. We can get an idea of this by juxtaposing external debt with the balance of trade, as pictured in the following graph. Spain Total External Debt

External debt exploded from €600 billion in 2002 to €1.6 trillion in 2008, while the trade deficit deteriorated from $4 billion/month in 2001 to $10 billion/month in 2008.

This debt binge, as in the US, took the form of a housing bubble. “The only way [Spain] was able to grow for many years prior to the crisis was with a surge in domestic credit that expanded the nontradable goods sector – real estate and consumption, for the most part, with surging real estate itself fueling further borrowing and consumption.”[3]

But it was not only Spain that in this manner paid the piper. Other countries as well participated in this spending binge, as the following graphs indicate:

Portugal Total Gross External Debt Greece Gross External Debt

Greece is of course the poster child for the, in retrospect, exorbitant and entirely irresponsible spending spree that characterized the pre-crash period, and which was gladly financed by the exporting countries of the North. The only problem with this method, as we saw with the world economy, is that it is unsustainable. At some point, the punch bowl is taken away, and whoever is left holding the bag is also left holding a slew of “odious debt.”[4]

In the aftermath of the credit crisis, the Euro Area has had to adjust to the collapse in consumer demand, just as has the United States. In one respect the two have followed similar paths: government deficit spending has served to fill the gap. The following graph shows how government debt has grown in the US and in the Euro Area. Euro Area Government Debt to GDP

The trajectories are quite similar, although the magnitudes differ somewhat: the US’s ratio of debt to GDP has burgeoned to over 100%, while that of the Euro Area now exceeds 90%.

This is one way the Euro Area has compensated for the drop in demand. Another is by resorting to exchange rate depreciation. This has improved the terms of trade for Euro Area exports and thus helped improve economic growth. Euro Dollar Exchange Rate - EUR/USD

The trend line refers to the exchange rate of the euro vis-à-vis the dollar, and clearly indicates a downward trend, which has the effect of making Euro Area exports more attractive. Because of this, the surplus on the Euro Area balance of trade has steadily widened. The Euro Area is thus attempting to export its way out of its present difficulties. But we now know where such a strategy leads: to dependence upon foreign demand, which itself is funded by capital exports.

We should make mention of one other attempt to boost demand: quantitative easing. Here as well, the Euro Area has followed the lead of the US, force-feeding the central banks’ balance sheets with bonds, which has the effect of flushing the money market with liquidity.

The following graph shows the extent of the operation. Here again, the trend lines are similar although the magnitudes differ somewhat: the Federal Reserve System now has about $4.5 trillion on its balance sheet, while the Euro System has about €3.4 trillion (about $3.8 trillion at current exchange rates). Euro Area Central Bank Balance Sheet

This together with deficit spending was to bolster economic growth. Nevertheless, that growth has remained fairly anemic: Euro Area GDP Annual Growth Rate

The fact of the matter is, neither of these strategies for fomenting growth are sustainable.

Quantitative easing is only a temporary panacea; at some point those bonds are either returned to the market or become due. In both cases, this removes liquidity from the money market.

The attempt to export one’s way to growth is likewise a dead end, as every country that has tried it has eventually discovered, to its cost. This is why Japan is moribund and why China is heading in that direction. Export-led economies need import-led economies to absorb their production; if those import-led economies for whatever reason stop importing and stop demanding, the export-led economies are left high and dry with essentially superfluous production capacity. On top of that, the trade imbalances that are required for this model require the continual buildup of debt, a similarly unsustainable course of action.

This is the reason why economists like Michael Pettis keep urging these export-led economies to rebalance away from dependence on exports towards a more balanced model based first and foremost on domestic demand. This would restore Palley’s “virtuous circle of growth” and the link between production and consumption, having the one pay for the other in the circular flow of the properly functioning economy.

What stands in the way of this? Recall Pettis’s explanation (in this post) of the techniques by which export-led economies generate excess capital with which to fund trade surpluses. They do so by implementing various policies that in effect force their own citizens to “save” rather than spend. Pettis’s list includes:

  • consumption taxes such as VAT, which reduce by the amount of the tax, the amount consumers may consume;
  • tariffs, which artificially increase the price of imported consumer goods, thus in essence forming another consumption tax;
  • financial repression, in which the state runs the banking system and rigs it in favor of commercial borrowers and against consumers, so that consumers have less money to spend on consumption.

In the European situation, it is VAT which jumps out on this list. VAT constitutes an enormous hindrance to consumption spending. The result is to ease pressure on exchange rates and so foment export performance, but at the expense of domestic consumers.

In his book The Great Rebalancing, Pettis points out another method by which Europe’s economic engine, Germany, has been able to generate the massive trade surpluses it has in recent years, especially in the light of its trade deficits in the 1990s. This came about through wage repression. German workers have agreed to have wage growth restrained in order to promote the greater good, which in this case is the German export machine. Pettis’s explanation merits quotation in extenso:

After German reunification in the early 1990s, Germany faced the problem of very high domestic unemployment. It resolved this by putting into place a number of policies, agreed on by trade unions, businesses, and the government, aimed at constraining wages and consumption and expanding production in order to regain competitiveness and generate jobs. Although these policies may have made sense for Germany and the world in the 1990s, … the creation of the euro introduced a new set of currency and monetary rigidities that would change the impact of these policies both within Germany and abroad.

Specifically, as wage growth was constrained in Germany by relatively tight monetary policy in the German context, it was left unconstrained in peripheral Europe because monetary policy there was, paradoxically, too loose given underlying conditions of rapid growth and rising prices. These policies resulted in an increasingly undervalued euro for Germany relative to the rest of Europe, low wages for its level of productivity, high consumption and income taxes, and expensive infrastructure funded by these taxes.

In that case it is not surprising that German GDP growth exceeded the growth in German household income, because households were effectively forced to subsidize employment growth, and this subsidy reduced disposable household income and consumption relative to total production….

The high German savings rate, in other words, had very little to do with whether Germans were ethnically or culturally programmed to save— contrary to the prevailing cultural stereotype. It was largely the consequence of policies aimed at generating rapid employment growth by restraining German consumption in order to subsidize German manufacturing— usually at the expense of manufacturers elsewhere in Europe and the world.[5]

The upshot of all of this is, Europe is as wedded to the system of neo-mercantilist trade imbalances as is the rest of the world. It is here that change needs to come, but no policy proposals are in the offing that even bring this problem set to the table, much less propose solutions to it.

Notes
  1. “[The] Euro Area runs regular trade surpluses primarily due to its high export of manufactured goods such as machinery and vehicles. [The] Euro area is a net importer of energy and raw materials. Germany, Italy, France and Netherlands account for the largest share of total trade. Main trading partners are the United Kingdom (12 percent of total exports and 10 percent of imports) and the United States (13 percent of exports and 6 percent of imports)” (TradingEconomics.com).
  2. As we outlined in the previous post, the current account is similar to the balance of trade and provides the same sort of indications.
  3. Michael Pettis, The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 4/29 of ch. 6 (ebook version).
  4. Jason Manolopoulos, Greece’s ‘Odious’ Debt: The Looting of the Hellenic Republic by the Euro, the Political Elite and the Investment Community (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2011).
  5. The Great Rebalancing, ch. 6, pp. 10-12/19.

Pettis on Brexit

Michael Pettis is one contemporary economist whose blog is worth reading. His books The Volatility Machine and The Great Rebalancing are required reading for those who would understand the workings of international trade relations, currency movements, and financial markets. His comments regarding the recent “Brexit” vote by the UK’s electorate are worth delving into.

“Last Friday’s Brexit turned out to be a far greater shock than most of us had expected,” he writes in his latest newsletter.[1]”I say this fully admitting that I was caught as flat-footed by the vote as anyone else, but not only was I wrong, my own work suggested that this was never as unlikely an outcome as I and most people thought.”

Indeed, anyone familiar with Pettis’s arguments regarding the serious problems facing the European Union should have been expecting such a result, and Pettis points out that followers of his work did just that.

I am glad to say that since the vote an American mutual fund and an Australian hedge fund have told me separately that although they did not expect the outcome, they did not think it was highly unlikely either, and had positioned themselves relatively well. They were both kind enough to tell me that they had done so largely because I had convinced them that the institutional rigidities in the euro zone would continue to undermine the economies of Europe and would cause nationalist and anti-immigrant parties to do extremely well. This would go on until either the European project broke down or the centrist parties radically changed their views.

Pettis goes on to point out that his economic analysis contradicted his own political analysis: “if I had had more confidence in the framework I use and less confidence in my ability to second guess public opinion, I would probably have expected that sooner or later there would be major ‘unexpected’ popular challenge to the European project.”

This happened to him once before, when he was intimately involved in financial constructions in Mexico, and is one reason he no longer seeks close relationships with government officials. In Mexico at the time, he got to know officials responsible for monetary policy intimately well. These officials assured him that Mexico would never devalue the peso, and Pettis, “deeply involved in trading and in arranging and structuring transactions in Latin American fixed income markets especially those of Mexico,” took their word for it. In the event, when Mexico did devalue, these officials were as shocked as he and everyone else. “My blunder was in not seeing the devaluation coming until October, when in retrospect it should have been obvious at least six months earlier.”

The same kind of considerations come into play now with regard to the European Union. In this sense, that economic analysis should not be clouded by official statements or even political wishful thinking. The European Union faces serious structural economic difficulties, and these should not be obscured by hopes regarding the desirability of the project.

To describe the situation Pettis uses the term “credibility Laffer curve.” In order to bolster credibility and assure markets that a country will maintain its exchange rate (e.g., Mexico in 1994) or, in the case of the euro today, that a country (e.g., one of the PIIGS) will stay in the euro, then that country will increase its debt as denominated in the pegged or fixed currency. This will show the world that it intends to stay in that arrangement, come what may. But Pettis argues for a “credibility Laffer curve,” as illustrated in the following graph:

From “Spain, Bankia and the Credibility Problem,” Financial Times, May 30, 2012. Available at http://goo.gl/sAEJqx.

Here, as “monetary severity” increases, credibility increases, but only to a point. After that, credibility begins decreasing again. The increased commitment evidenced in taking on more of this debt will encourage investors to put, or keep, their money in, e.g., Spanish debt; but at some point the amount of debt will reach a point where investors will lose confidence in the credibility of that commitment. And so money will begin ebbing away from that debt market, making the commitment ever less tenable (go here for more on this).

In the current situation, Pettis applies his insight as follows. “I think the ECB is itself now creating a kind of ‘credibility Laffer curve’ similar to that of Mexico, and I suspect I will find several occasions to discuss this concept in the future, but the key point in this particular case is that the great distortions imposed by the euro project, and the wider institutional distortions that have led to high levels of income inequality around the world, have not changed. That is why I should have assumed that any chance for a sharp gapping in public awareness, like the Brexit referendum, might surprise us.”

What is the choice for Europe, in the face of these seismic events in public opinion? “Europe must choose either a major reflation of demand in Germany that redresses the deep imbalances within Europe and reduces the growth of debt in peripheral Europe, although at the expense of more German debt and lower German ‘competitiveness’, or it will be forced to suffer high unemployment and an inexorably rising debt burden in peripheral Europe that will only end after many more years of suffering or with a break-up of the euro. So far it continues with the latter.”

The conclusion? “For this reason we should not be surprised by the continued migration of votes to the nationalist, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant camp. I have been writing about this process for five years and I should not have been shocked to see it happen in England.”

Indeed. Given the astounding reticence to put forward effective policy initiatives (quantitative easing? are you kidding?), these problems will continue to simmer, with responsibility for action continually put off by the current crop of politicians and policymakers, leaving it to the next set of politicians and policymakers to solve, and so on and so on. No amount of emotive appeals to European unity and the European “ideal” will make up for that fecklessness.


 

  1. “Monthly Report, June 29, 2016,” published by Global Source Partners. Pettis’s blog is accessible here.

The Economic Consequences of the Release (i.e., Brexit)

Much has been written on the recent decision by the UK to leave the European Union. Much of it is emotion-driven. But that is no way to assess such an important turn of events. The actual significance is, in significant degree, economic in nature. This calls for an economic analysis, to which we now turn.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Report published in April 2016, entitled The Economic Consequences of Brexit: A Taxing Decision[1], provides a competent summary of the disadvantages that might follow upon a British departure from the EU. We will use it as a reference for interaction.

Initial objections

The initial objections the Report registers are based on circumstantial evidence.

This holds for “Since EU membership in 1973, UK living standards have risen more than in peers” and “A multipolar world implies that the UK is economically stronger as an EU member, and in turn contributes to the EU strength.” (both on p. 9). Despite the graphs, such arguments, are, at best, suggestive rather than demonstrative. The same holds true for the objection that “Uncertainty has already begun to have a negative impact on the economy” (p. 10).

Exchange rates and the balance of trade

The Report then claims that “Uncertainty about Brexit has led to capital outflows and a weaker exchange rate” (p. 12). For a country running a perennial trade deficit, this is anything but objectionable. The graph below shows the development of the UK’s balance of trade since joining the EU (then the European Economic Community) in 1973.UK balance of trade

 

This shows a downward trend, and since the late 1990s, a persistent trade deficit. As such, a decline in the pound’s exchange rate will only help matters, by encouraging exports and discouraging imports.

This leads directly to the next objection, which is a weighty one. “Trade would be hit when the UK formally exits the EU.” If this is the case, it would be dire indeed. Let’s examine the substance.

“The EU remains the main trade partner of the UK and the financial sector benefits from direct access to the Single Market, which has strengthened the comparative advantage of the City” (p. 14). Absolutely true. And by way of elucidation: “Exports to EU countries account for about 12% of UK GDP and about 45% of total UK exports, and for imports the EU is even a more important partner.” This was already implied in the trade deficit data we looked at above.

The graphs below shows the breakdown. The first shows, by percentage, the UK’s export destinations, the second shows the UK’s imports by country of origin (source: The Observatory of Economic Complexity [http://atlas.media.mit.edu]).

UK exports

UK imports

The data is from 2014. As can be seen visually, Europe accounts for the lion’s share of both imports and exports.

The Report includes the following graph on page 15, showing the trade and current account situation between the UK and the EU:

UK current account2

Now then, all of this indicates mutual dependence. Even more than that, though, it indicates that the EU is more dependent upon the UK as a source of income than the other way around, given the fact that the UK runs a trade deficit with the EU. The EU has every reason to maintain existing trade relations with the UK. It would be to the EU’s disadvantage not to do so.

Renegotiating trade deals

The Report goes on to claim that “Negotiating a new trade agreement with the EU is likely to be complex” (p. 16). The various possibilities are laid out in a table, which we reproduce here:

brexit arrangementsThe claim is that negotiations will be complex and that the UK will be on the outside looking in, with the very real possibility of being relegated to “Most Favored Nation” status, in which trade with the EU will be “subject to the EU’s common external tariff.”

For one thing, negotiations need not be complex at all. The website Lawyers for Britain has put together comprehensive, detailed research papers on this issue, of which we gratefully make use. On Brexit and International Trade Treaties, it summarizes the issue both for the UK and for trading partners generally, with the following points (emphasis added to highlight key issues):

  • “Because of the EU customs union and ‘common commercial policy’, the UK is not able to negotiate its own trade agreements with non-member countries — we can only do so as part of the EU. The UK will be able to participate in new trade agreements with non-member countries from the day after exit.  The process of negotiating new trade deals can be started during the 2-year notice period leading up to Brexit, with a view to bringing them into force on or soon after the date of exit.
  • “The EU has existing free trade agreements which currently apply to the UK as an EU member.  Most of these EU agreements are with micro-States or developing countries and only a small number represent significant export markets for the UK.  Both the EU and the member states (including the UK) are parties to these agreements. The UK could simply continue to apply the substantive terms of these agreements on a reciprocal basis after exit unless the counterparty State were actively to object. We can see no rational reason why the counterparty States would object to this course since that would subject their existing export trade into the UK market, which is currently tariff free, to new tariffs. There will be no need for complicated renegotiation of these existing agreements as was misleadingly claimed by pro-Remain propaganda.
  • “The UK was a founder member of EFTA but withdrew when we joined the EEC in 1973.  We could apply to re-join with effect from the day after Brexit. There is no reason why the four current EFTA countries would not welcome us back, given that the UK is one of EFTA’s largest export markets.  EFTA membership would allow us to continue uninterrupted free trade relations with the four EFTA countries, and also to participate in EFTA’s promotion of free trade deals with non-member countries around the world.
  • “The EU is seriously encumbered in trying to negotiate trade agreements by the large number of vociferous protectionist special interests within its borders.  After Brexit, the UK would be able to negotiate new trade deals unencumbered by these special interests much faster than the EU, and with a higher priority for faciliting access to markets for our own export industries including services.
  • “It is completely untrue that you need to be a member of a large bloc like the EU in order to strike trade deals.  The actual record of the EU compared to that (for example) of the EFTA countries demonstrates the direct opposite.
  • “The baseline of our trade relationship with the remaining EU states would be governed by WTO rules which provide for non-discrimination in tariffs, and outlaw discriminatory non-tariff measures. From this baseline, and as the remaining EU’s largest single export market,  we would be in a strong position to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal providing for the continued free flow of goods and services in both directions.  We explain what such a deal would look like in a later post, Brexit – doing a deal with the EU.”

All of this indicates that it will require no herculean effort for the UK to reestablish itself as an independent trading partner, neither vis-à-vis the EU, nor the world at large. After all, the other countries of the world are not members of the EU, and they are surviving. And it bears repeating that for the EU to impose a tariff on UK imports would make no sense at all, because the same kind of tariff would be imposed reciprocally on exports to the UK: all $420 billion of them (from all of Europe, 2014).

All in all, it would be in the EU’s best interest to simply maintain existing trade relations, as they are eminently in its interest.

Other near-term effects

Further near-term effects discussed in the Report, such as a putative “reduction in UK trade openness,” “imposition of tighter controls on inward migration,” leading to “a large negative shock to the UK economy, which would spillover to other European countries” (all p. 21), are either mere surmises or could serve to argue the exact opposite.

The argument that a decline in the exchange rate would have deleterious effects on the UK economy is an example of an argument that could just as well be used to argue the opposite. As discussed above, a decline in the exchange rate would bolster UK exports and inhibit imports, which would benefit the UK and disadvantage the EU. In other words, the neo-mercantilist export policy of the EU countries like German and the Netherlands would be brought more in line with equity.

Long-term effect on trade

The Report goes on to discuss possible long-term effects.

The first one discussed is the trade situation. “The UK is the most attractive destination for FDI in the EU, partly owing to access to the EU internal market” (p. 24). Foreign direct investment would be restricted by withdrawal from this internal market. But again, as noted above, access to the single market is unlikely to be restricted, as the EU derives more advantage from it than the UK. Furthermore, the major inhibitor to direct investment is currency risk. But it’s not like the UK is withdrawing from the euro; it is only rearranging its relation with the EU, with the relation between the pound and the euro (a free float) not changing at all.

Effect of reduced immigration

Secondly, “Immigrants, particularly from EU countries, have boosted GDP growth significantly in the UK” (p. 26). Apparently, immigrants are more productive than native-born Britons. This is obviously a contentious statement; whether it proves anything is another question. Then there is this contention: “Immigrants from the EU make a positive contribution to the public finances, despite relying on the UK welfare system, which is also the case of UK migrants elsewhere in the EU” (p. 27). This is another statement difficult to rhyme with realities. Even if immigrants are all net contributors in terms of social welfare revenues and payouts, the jobs they take, leave other labor market participants without jobs and thus, at least in part, adds to the social welfare rolls (unemployment and other forms of social assistance). In addition, “immigrants from new EU countries have comparatively lower wages…” (p. 27), which means they depress wages, which may be beneficial to employers, but not to employees, and additionally reduce consumption.

The claim is made that reduced immigration would lead to reduced skills, and “A loss of skills would reduce technical progress.” That may be true in the short term, but where there is demand for skills, there will be training and education to enable workers to acquire those skills, and there is no inherent reason why native-born Britons could not be trained up. It is in fact a curious prejudice and form of reverse discrimination to believe otherwise.

The upshot

As a result of these putative disadvantages, the claim is made for a “central scenario” in which “UK GDP is more than 5% below the baseline by 2030.” Just the opposite is at least as likely.

Objections in favor of withdrawal can also be made, of course, but the Report neglects to mention those. One is the fact that the UK is the second-largest net contributor to the EU’s budget, after Germany. Another is that the UK bears a major part of the costs of the EU’s common defense. Yet another is the costs of an inherently cumbersome and inefficient, far-off, relatively unaccountable bureaucracy regulating so much of the economic life of the nation.

But the biggest problem with the EU is tangential to this particular debate. It has to do with the single currency, the euro, in which the UK, of course, is not a participant. The euro forms a massive net drag on the world economy, and the debt overhang to which it has contributed, by having encouraged irresponsible, indeed unconscionable, North-South lending, is an toxic inheritance that not only stifles current economic growth, but also forms a burden that future generations will be hard-pressed to alleviate.

That, however, is stuff for another discussion. For now, it is enough to re-emphasize that, in line with the position outlined here (with an assist here), it is nations, not empires, that create wealth. And that should be kept uppermost in everyone’s mind.


 

  1. Kierzenkowski,R., et al.  (2016), “The Economic Consequences of Brexit: A Taxing Decision”, OECD Economic Policy Papers, No. 16, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Is There a PIIG in Germany’s Parlor?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single country in possession of a current account surplus must be in need of an export market.” With apologies to Jane Austen, of course: the sentiment thus expressed actually is anything but universally acknowledged. In fact, it flies in the face of received wisdom. We are accustomed to thinking of countries running current account surpluses as generating these surpluses by dint of superior industry, frugality, in short, superior economic character.

Take Germany. It has been running current account surpluses ranging from 2% to 7½% of GDP since 2001. The popular view is that such surpluses result from thrift or productivity. Let’s assume that’s the case. Given floating exchange rates, the current account surplus should result in an appreciating exchange rate, so that the surplus would result in more expensive exports and cheaper imports. This would then bring the current account back into equilibrium with trading partners; trade “imbalances” would automatically adjust.

But that hasn’t happened with Germany. The current account surpluses have been persistent, and persistently high. That absence of an equilibrating effect is due to the fact that the German currency does not float. Rather, it is linked to the other currencies of the European Monetary System who share a common currency, the euro.

Once upon a time there was a mechanism to bring about equilibrium, even between countries that shared a common currency. This was the “automatic mechanism,” the gold standard of the late 19th century. That mechanism (as I explain in my book Follow the Money) brought about an equilibrium through gold flows. In the country experiencing a current account surplus, gold would flow inward; and in the country experiencing a deficit, gold would flow outward. Thanks to the banking system, this in turn led to expansion in the surplus country, contraction in the deficit country. The boom country, experiencing a rise in prices, would thus import more and export less, while the depressed country, where prices were falling, would begin exporting over importing. And so the two economies would come back into some sort of equilibrium.

Nowadays, of course, there is no gold-standard automatic mechanism: there are no gold flows to do the equilibrating. So Germany’s current account remains in surplus, and its trading partners, chiefly the countries of southern Europe which likewise share the euro, remain in deficit. These countries are collectively known as the PIIGS, an acronym for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. (Of course, Ireland is not in Southern Europe, but functionally it belongs in this group.)

The deficits being run by the PIIGS form the reverse image to Germany’s surpluses, as the following graphs indicate. Each graph shows Germany’s current account balance (surplus or deficit as percentage of GDP) together with each of the PIIGS (source: tradingeconomics.com):

new-1

new-2new-3new-4new-5Take another look at those graphs: prior to 2001 and the introduction of the euro, it was Germany that was running current account deficits! The PIIGS, for their part, ran surpluses or modest deficits. The change came about with the introduction of the euro. The euro was set at exchange rates that favored Germany’s economy and disfavored those of the PIIGS. Essentially, Germany was set too low while the PIIGS were set too high.

So then, thrift or economic virtue might explain Germany’s initial current account surplus, but it is the euro that has kept the system from coming into equilibrium, thus perpetuating those surpluses. The euro also has essentially bankrupted the PIIGS, who paid for their deficits by going into massive debt.

Persistent current account surpluses are not a sign of thrift but of dysfunctional exchange rates, not allowed to perform their equilibrating function. That, of course, is nothing new. But it needs to be recognized.