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.
The UK’s balance on trade continues to be sharply in deficit. At the same time, both manufacturing and overall production are still well below their pre-crisis levels. What is more, with a sterling exchange rate that has appreciated substantially over recent months, UK exports are at an increasing price disadvantage. The hoped-for re-balancing of the economy from debt-financed consumption to investment and exports has not occurred. Investment in the UK remains low relative to that in other major economies (see).
But other developments in the global economy are working in the UK’s favour.
Manufacturing globally is becoming more capital intensive, which reduces the comparative advantage of developing countries with low labour costs.
At the same time, the dividing line between manufacturing and services is becoming more blurred. Manufacturers in developing countries may still produce parts, such as chips or engines, but the design, marketing and sales of the products may take place in developed countries, such as the UK. Indeed, as products become more sophisticated, an increasing amount of value added may occur in developed countries.
The UK may be particularly well-placed in this regard. It can provide many high-end services in IT, business support and financial services to international manufacturers. It may have a comparative advantage in idea-intensive production.
Finally with a higher exchange rate, the UK’s terms of trade have been improving. The downside is that it makes UK exports more expensive in foreign currency terms, but it also makes commodity prices cheaper, which have already fallen in dollar terms, and also the prices of imported component parts. This helps offset the effect of the appreciation of the exchange rate on exports.
The following article by Jeremy Warner considers whether, despite its poor performance in traditional manufacturing, the UK might have hit an economic ‘sweet spot’ in its trade position.
Unbalanced but lucky, Britain hits an economic sweet spot The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (8/9/15)
UK Trade (Excel file) ONS (9/9/15)
(See, for example, Worksheet 1. You can search for longer series using Google advanced search, putting www.ons.gov.uk in the ‘site or domaine’ box and searching for a particular series, using the series identifier found at the top of each column in the Excel file, such as BOKI for balance on trade in goods.)
Exchange rate data Bank of England Statistical Interactive Database
- Explain the difference between the balance on trade, the balance on trade in goods and the balance of payments on current account.
- Why has the UK not experienced a re-balancing of the economy as hope for by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, amongst others?
- What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’?
- What would cause an ‘improvement’ in the terms of trade?
- Are the UK’s terms of trade likely to move in the UK’s favour in the coming months? Explain.
- What current factors are mitigating against a recovery of UK manufacturing exports?
- Is de-industrialisation necessarily a ‘bad thing’?
- Does the development of new capital-intensive technologies in manufacturing mean that the UK could become a net exporter of manufactures? Explain why or why not.
The UK’s trade deficit narrowed in March to £2.74bn from £2.95bn in February. The goods deficit fell just slightly to £8.56bn from £8.59bn, but the services surplus rose more substantially to £5.83bn from £5.64bn.
So was this a sign of the UK economy’s relative weakness holding back the demand for imports? Or was it a sign of a recovering export sector, especially in services?
And what of the coming months? What will be the effect of a growing crisis in the eurozone on (a) the sterling exchange rate, (b) the rate of economic growth outside the UK and (c) UK economic growth? And what will be the effect of these on the demand for imports and exports and on the trade balance? The following articles examine the issues.
(For a PowerPoint of the above chart, click on the following link: Balance of trade)
UK goods trade deficit stable as exports to non-EU countries rebound Reuters (15/5/12)
UK trade deficit narrows in March to £2.7bn BBC News (15/5/12)
Exports close UK trade deficit Guardian (15/5/12)
First trade surplus in cars since 1976 The Telegraph, Emma Rowley (15/5/12)
UK trade deficit narrows in March Fresh Business Thinking, Marcus Leach (15/5/12)
UK Trade, March 2012 ONS Release (15/5/12)
- Distinguish between the balance on trade in goods, the balance of trade and the balance on current account.
- Why did the UK’s trade deficit fall in March 2012?
- Why did the UK experience its first trade surplus in cars since 1976?
- What is likely to happen to the UK’s balance of trade in the coming months? How is the income elasticity of demand for UK exports and imports relevant to the answer?
- What has been happening recently to the sterling exchange rate? How will this impact on the UK’s balance of trade? How will the size of this impact depend on the price elasticity of demand and supply for imports and exports?