One of President Trump’s main policy slogans has been ‘America first’. As Trump sees it, a manifestation of a country’s economic strength is its current account balance. He would love the USA to have a current account surplus. As it is, it has the largest current account deficit in the world (in absolute terms) of $481 billion in 2016 or 2.6% of GDP. This compares with the UK’s $115bn or 4.4% of GDP. Germany, by contrast, had a surplus in 2016 of $294bn or 8.5% of GDP.
However, he looks at other countries’ current account surpluses suspiciously – they may be a sign, he suspects, of ‘unfair play’. Germany’s surplus of over $50bn with the USA is particularly in his sights. Back in January, as President-elect, he threatened to put a 35% tariff on imports of German cars.
In practice, Germany is governed by eurozone rules, which prevent it from subsidising exports. And it does not have its own currency to manipulate. What is more, it is relatively open to imports from the USA. The EU imposes an average tariff of just 3% on US imports and importers also have to add VAT (19% in the case of Germany) to make them comparably priced with goods produced within the EU.
So why does Germany have such a large current account surplus? The article below explores the question and dismisses the claim that it’s the result of currency manipulation or discrimination against imports. The article states that the reason for the German surplus is that:
… it saves more than it invests. The correspondence of savings minus investment with exports minus imports is not an economic theory; it’s an accounting identity. Germans collectively spend less than they produce, and the difference necessarily shows up as net exports.
But why do the Germans save so much? The answer given is that, with an aging population, Germans are sensibly saving now to support themselves in old age. If Germany were to reduce its current account surplus, this would entail either the government reducing its budget surplus, or people reducing the amount they save, or some combination of the two. This is because a current account surplus, which consists of exports and other incomes from abroad (X) minus imports and any other income flowing abroad (M), must equal the surplus of saving (S) plus taxation (T) over investment (I) plus government expenditure (G). In terms of withdrawals and injections, given that:
I + G + X = S + T + M
then, rearranging the terms,
X – M = (S + T) – (I + G).
If German people are reluctant to reduce the amount they save, then an alternative is for the German government to reduce taxation or increase government expenditure. In the run-up to the forthcoming election on 24 September, Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right CDU party advocates cutting taxes, while the main opposition party, the SPD, advocates increasing government expenditure, especially on infrastructure. The article considers the arguments for these two approaches.
The German economy is unbalanced – but Trump has the wrong answer The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (12/5/17)
German economic data (in English) Statistisches Bundesamt (Federal Statistical Office)
World Economic Outlook Databases IMF
- Why does Germany have such a large current account surplus?
- What are the costs and benefits to Germany of having a large current account surplus?
- What is meant by ‘mercantilism’? Why is its justification fallacious?
- If Germany had its own currency, would it be a good idea for it to let that currency appreciate?
- What are meant by ‘resource crowding out’ and ‘financial crowding out’? Why might the policies of tax cuts advocated by the CDU result in crowding out? What form would it take and why?
- Compare the relative benefits of the policies advocated by the CDU and SPD to reduce Germany’s budget surplus.
- Would other countries, such as the USA, benefit from a reduction in Germany’s current account surplus?
- Is what ways would the USA gain and lose from restricting imports from Germany? Would it be a net gain or loss? Explain.
On 14 December, the US Federal Reserve announced that its 10-person Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) had unanimously decided to raise the Fed’s benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to a range of between 0.5% and 0.75%. This is the first rise since this time last year, which was the first rise for nearly 10 years.
The reasons for the rise are two-fold. The first is that the US economy continues to grow quite strongly, with unemployment edging downwards and confidence edging upwards. Although the rate of inflation is currently still below the 2% target, the FOMC expects inflation to rise to the target by 2018, even with the rate rise. As the Fed’s press release states:
Inflation is expected to rise to 2% over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.
The second reason for the rate rise is the possible fiscal policy stance of the new Trump administration. If, as expected, the new president adopts an expansionary fiscal policy, with tax cuts and increased government spending on infrastructure projects, this will stimulate the economy and put upward pressure on inflation. It could also mean that the Fed will raise interest rates again more quickly. Indeed, the FOMC indicated that it expects three rate rises in 2017 rather than the two it predicted in September.
However, just how much and when the Fed will raise interest rates again is highly uncertain. Future monetary policy measures will only become more predictable when Trump’s policies and their likely effects become clearer.
US Federal Reserve raises interest rates and flags quicker pace of tightening in 2017 Independent, Ben Chu (14/12/16)
US Federal Reserve raises interest rates: what happens next? The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (15/12/16)
Holiday traditions: The Fed finally manages to lift rates in 2016 The Economist (14/12/16)
US raises key interest rate by 0.25% on strengthening economy BBC News (14/12/16)
Fed Raises Key Interest Rate, Citing Strengthening Economy The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (14/12/16)
US dollar surges to 14-year high as Fed hints at three rate hikes in 2017 The Guardian, Martin Farrer and agencies (15/12/16)
- What determines the stance of US monetary policy?
- How does fiscal policy impact on market interest rates and monetary policy?
- What effect does a rise in interest rates have on exchange rates and the various parts of the balance of payments?
- What effect is a rise in US interest rates likely to have on other countries?
- What is meant by ‘forward guidance’ in the context of monetary policy? What are the benefits of providing forward guidance?
- What were the likely effects on the US stock market of the announcement by the FOMC?
- Following the FOMC announcement, two-year US Treasury bond yields rose to 1.231%, the highest since August 2009. Explain why.
- For what reason does the FOMC believe that the US economy is already expanding at roughly the maximum sustainable pace?
Are emerging markets about to experience a credit crunch? Slowing growth in China and other emerging market economies (EMEs) does not bode well. Nor does the prospect of rising interest rates in the USA and the resulting increase in the costs of servicing the high levels of dollar-denominated debt in many such countries.
According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) (see also), the stock of dollar-denominated debt in emerging market economies has doubled since 2009 and this makes them vulnerable to tighter US monetary policy.
Weaker financial market conditions combined with an increased sensitivity to US rates may heighten the risk of negative spillovers to EMEs when US policy is normalised. …
Despite low interest rates, rising debt levels have pushed debt service ratios for households and firms above their long-run averages, particularly since 2013, signalling increased risks of financial crises in EMEs.
But there is another perspective. Many emerging economies are pursuing looser monetary policy and this, combined with tighter US monetary policy, is causing their exchange rates against the dollar to depreciate, thereby increasing their export competitiveness. At the same time, more rapid growth in the USA and some EU countries, should also help to stimulate demand for their exports.
Also, in recent years there has been a large growth in trade between emerging economies – so-called ‘South–South trade’. Exports from developing countries to other developing countries has grown from 38% of developing countries’ exports in 1995 to over 52% in 2015. With technological catch-up taking place in many of these economies and with lower labour and land costs, their prospects look bright for economic growth over the longer term.
These two different perspectives are taken in the following two articles from the Telegraph. The first looks at the BIS’s analysis of growing debt and the possibility of a credit crunch. The second, while acknowledging the current weakness of many emerging economies, looks at the prospects for improving growth over the coming years.
‘Uneasy’ market calm masks debt timebomb, BIS warns The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (6/12/15)
Why emerging markets will rise from gloom to boom The Telegraph, Liam Halligan (5/12/15)
- How does an improving US economy impact on emerging market economies?
- Will the impact of US monetary policy on exchange rates be adverse or advantageous for emerging market economies?
- What forms does dollar-denominated debt take in emerging economies?
- Why has south–south trade grown in recent years? Is it consistent with the law of comparative advantage?
- Why is growth likely to be higher in emerging economies than in developed economies in the coming years?
On August 11th, China devalued its currency, the yuan, by 1.9%. The next day it devalued it by a further 1.6% and on the next day by a further 1.1%. Even though the total devaluation was relatively small, especially given a much bigger revaluation over the previous three years (see chart below), traders in world markets greeted the news with considerable pessimism. Stock markets around the world fell. For example, the US Dow Jones was down by 1.1%, the FTSE 100 was down by 2.5% and the German DAX by 5.8%.
There are three major concerns of investors about the devaluation. The first is that a weaker yuan will make other countries’ exports more expensive in China, thereby making it harder to export to China. At the same time Chinese imports into the rest of the world will be cheaper, thereby making it harder for domestic producers to compete with Chinese imports.
The second is that cheaper Chinese imports will put downward pressure on prices at a time when inflation rates in the major economies are already below target rates. The fear of deflation has not gone away and this further deflationary twist will intensify such fears and possibly dampen demand.
The third is that the devaluation is taken as a sign that the Chinese authorities are worried about a slowing Chinese economy and are using the devaluation to boost Chinese exports. The rapidly expanding Chinese economy has been one of the major motors of the global economy in recent years and hence a slowing Chinese economy is cause for serious concern at a time when the global economy is still only very slowly recovering from the shock of the financial crisis of 2007–8
But just how worried should the rest of the world be about the falling yuan? And will it continue to fall, or could this be seen as a ‘one-off’ correction? What effect will it have on the macroeconomic policies of the USA, the eurozone and other major countries/regions? The following articles analyse Chinese policy towards its currency and the implications for the rest of the world.
China weakens yuan for a third straight day on Thursday CNBC, Nyshka Chandran (13/8/15)
Markets reel as investors fear worst of Chinese slowdown is yet to come The Telegraph, Peter Spence (12/8/15)
China cannot risk the global chaos of currency devaluation The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (12/8/15)
Beware a China crisis that could crash down on us all The Telegraph, Liam Halligan (15/8/15)
The curious case of China’s currency The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (11/8/15)
China’s yuan currency falls for a second day BBC News (12/8/15)
China slowdown forces devaluation BBC News, Robert Peston (11/8/15)
What the yuan devaluation means around the world BBC News, Lerato Mbele, Daniel Gallas and Yogita Limaye (12/8/15)
China allows yuan currency to drop for third day BBC News, various reporters (13/8/15)
The Guardian view on global currencies: it’s the economy, stupid The Guardian, Editorial (14/8/15)
China’s currency gambit and Labour’s debate about quantitative easing: old and new ways to cope with economic crisis The Guardian, Paul Mason (16/8/15)
- By what percentages have the nominal and real yuan exchange rate indices appreciated since the beginning of 2011? Use data from the Bank for International Settlements.
- Explain the difference between nominal and real exchange rate indices.
- Compare the changes in the yuan exchange rate indices with that of the yuan/dollar exchange rate (see Bank of England Interactive Database). Explain the difference.
- How is the yuan exchange rate with other currencies determined?
- How have the Chinese authorities engineered a devaluation of the yuan? To what extent could it be described as a ‘depreciation’ rather than a ‘devaluation’?
- Why have world stock markets reacted so negatively to the devaluation?
- Why, in global terms, is the devaluation described as deflationary?
- How much should the rest of the world be worried by the devaluation of the yuan?
- Explain the statement by Robert Peston that ‘Beijing has done the monetary tightening that arguably the US economy needs’.
- Comment on the following statement by Stephen King of HSBC (see the second Telegraph article below): ‘The world economy is sailing across the ocean without any lifeboats to use in case of emergency.’
Newspaper headlines this week read that the UK’s balance of trade deficit has widened to £34.8bn, the largest since 2010. And when you exclude services, the trade in goods deficit, at £119.9bn is the largest ever in nominal terms and is also likely to be the largest as a percentage of GDP.
So far so bad. But when you look a little closer, the picture is more mixed. The balance of trade deficit (i.e. on both goods and services) narrowed each quarter of 2014, although the monthly figure did widen in December 2014. In fact the trade in goods deficit increased substantially in December from £9.3bn to £10.2bn.
At first sight the widening of the trade deficit in December might seem surprising, given the dramatic drop in oil prices. Surely, with demand for oil being relatively inelastic, a large cut in oil prices should significantly reduce the expenditure on oil? In fact the reverse happened. The oil deficit in December increased from £598m to £940m. The reason is that oil importing companies have been stockpiling oil while low prices persist. Clearly, this is in anticipation that oil prices will rise again before too long. What we have seen, therefore, is a demand that is elastic in the short run, even though it is relatively inelastic in the medium run.
But the trade deficit is still large. Even when you strip out oil, the deficit in December still rose – from £8.7bn to £9.2bn. There are two main reasons for this deterioration.
The first is a strong pound. The sterling exchange rate index rose by 1.8% in December and a further 0.4% in January. With quantitative easing pushing down the value of the euro and loose monetary policies in China and Australia pushing down the value of their currencies, sterling is set to appreciate further.
The second is continuing weakness in the eurozone and a slowing of growth in some major developing countries, including China. This will continue to dampen the growth in UK exports.
But what of the overall current account? Figures are at present available only up to 2014 Q3, but the picture is bleak (see the chart). As the ONS states:
The current account deficit widened in Q3 2014, to 6.0% of nominal Gross Domestic Product GDP, representing the joint largest deficit since Office for National Statistics (ONS) records began in 1955.
This deterioration in performance can be partly attributed to the recent weakness in the primary income balance [see]. This also reached a record deficit in Q3 2014 of 2.8% of nominal GDP; a figure that can be primarily attributed to a fall in UK residents’ earnings from investment abroad, and broadly stable foreign resident earnings on their investments in the UK
The primary income account captures income flows into and out of the UK economy, as opposed to current transfers (secondary income) from taxes, grants, etc. The large deficit reflects a decline in the holding by UK residents of foreign assets from 92% of GDP in 2008 to 67% by the end of 2014. This, in turn, reflects the poorer rate of return on many of these assets. By contrast, the holdings of UK assets by foreign residents has increased. They have been earning a higher rate of return on these assets than UK residents have on foreign assets. And so, despite UK interest rates having fallen, as the quote above says, foreign residents’ earnings on their holding of UK assets has remained broadly stable.
UK trade deficit last year widest since 2010 BBC News (6/2/15)
UK’s trade deficit widens to 2010 high as consumers take advantage of falling oil The Telegraph, Peter Spence (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit widens to four-year high The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/2/15)
UK trade deficit hits four-year high Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (6/2/15)
Balance of Payments ONS (topic link)
Summary: UK Trade, December 2014 ONS (6/2/15)
Current account, income balance and net international investment position ONS (23/1/15)
Pink Book – Tables ONS
- Distinguish between he current account, the capital account and the financial account of the balance of payments.
- If the overall balance of payments must, by definition, balance, why does it matter if the following are in deficit: (a) trade in goods; (b) the current account; (b) income flows?
- What would cause the balance of trade deficit to narrow?
- Discuss what policies the government could pursue to reduce the size of the current account deficit? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies.
- Why has the sterling exchange rate index been appreciating in recent months?
- What do you think is likely to happen to the sterling exchange rate index in the coming months? Explain.